This book was sent to me by the publisher as a review copy.
I have a terrible admission to make. I came to this book with a paltry knowledge of Fibonacci (Leonardo of Pisa). The knowledge that I thought that I had was quickly shown in fact to be incorrect, so I was largely starting with a blank slate (Fibonacci did not discover the Fibonacci sequence, nor would he be terribly happy to know that in the popular psyche, this is what he is famous for).
In fact, this book is not really about Fibonacci (Devlin has another book about him). This is a book about the writing of a book, and about Devlin’s process of uncovering the history and importance of what Fibonacci had accomplished. It is a book about the research of the history of mathematics, and as such, it is a lovely tale: one of fortuitous moments of discovery, and of frustrations of searching for manuscripts.
It is a tale of parallels – the parallel between Fibonnaci’s exposition of complex ideas to the general public and that of Devlin himself, who has been responsible for some of the greatest expository writing on mathematics of the last decades. It is also a tale of the parallel between the exposition of the Hindu-Arabic system of arithmetic in Europe by Fibonacci and the introduction of the Personal Computer by Steve Jobs.
The history itself is indeed, as stated on the front cover, one of enormous importance, and one which we should all be familiar with, as it is truly one of the most revolutionary moments in the ‘progress’ of European science and commerce. Fibonacci was responsible, so it would seem, for laying out in expository detail, the process of using the Hindu-Arabic arithmetic system, which allowed for a far more efficient mathematical future than the use of the Roman numeral system, and reckoning using fingers and the abacus.
The book is about understanding the context and motivation for Fibonacci writing Liber Abbaci (The book of calculation), a tome of a now tedious nature laying out many hundreds of examples of what would now be considered relatively simple arithmetic problems, but which to those reading it would have seemed revolutionary. The problems are related to interest, to inheritance, to exchange rates, to the acquisition of companies and goods, and would be accessible to just about any high school, or many even to primary school students now. However in the 13th century, this was a complete shift in the way of seeing mathematics, and brought over what had been in place for many years along the Silk Road, through India, and through North Africa, where Fibonacci would have discovered these methods in use by the Merchants there.
This book is a short investigation into Devlin’s own discovery of the true importance of what Fibonacci had done, and as such is a lovely read. If I have one criticism of the book it is that when Devlin starts delving into the importance of Fibonacci’s expository writing on finance, he defers to an article by William Goetzmann. This is taken (with Goetzmann’s permission) almost wholesale from the article, and this is not as clear as Devlin’s own writing. I understand that Devlin is not an expert in finance, but it feels that the flow of the book is somewhat interrupted by this change in style. Perhaps though, this is my own bias as someone relatively fluent in mathematics, but not in finance.
In conclusion, if you would like a short but fun read about the way Devlin discovered the true importance of the works of Fibonacci, then this is the book for you.