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The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci's Arithmetic Revolution

The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci's Arithmetic Revolution

3.5 4
by Keith Devlin

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In 1202, a 32-year old Italian finished one of the most influential books of all time, which introduced modern arithmetic to Western Europe. Devised in India in the 7th and 8th centuries and brought to North Africa by Muslim traders, the Hindu-Arabic system helped transform the West into the dominant force in science, technology, and commerce, leaving behind Muslim


In 1202, a 32-year old Italian finished one of the most influential books of all time, which introduced modern arithmetic to Western Europe. Devised in India in the 7th and 8th centuries and brought to North Africa by Muslim traders, the Hindu-Arabic system helped transform the West into the dominant force in science, technology, and commerce, leaving behind Muslim cultures which had long known it but had failed to see its potential.
The young Italian, Leonardo of Pisa (better known today as Fibonacci), had learned the Hindu number system when he traveled to North Africa with his father, a customs agent. The book he created was Liber abbaci, the "Book of Calculation," and the revolution that followed its publication was enormous. Arithmetic made it possible for ordinary people to buy and sell goods, convert currencies, and keep accurate records of possessions more readily than ever before. Liber abbaci's publication led directly to large-scale international commerce and the scientific revolution of the Renaissance.
Yet despite the ubiquity of his discoveries, Leonardo of Pisa remains an enigma. His name is best known today in association with an exercise in Liber abbaci whose solution gives rise to a sequence of numbers--the Fibonacci sequence--used by some to predict the rise and fall of financial markets, and evident in myriad biological structures.
One of the great math popularizers of our time, Keith Devlin recreates the life and enduring legacy of an overlooked genius, and in the process makes clear how central numbers and mathematics are to our daily lives.

Editorial Reviews

When Fabonacci (c.1170-c.1250) acquired the open secret that revolutionized western arithmetic, he was just a young boy from Pisa traveling with his father in North Africa. It was there that he learned the Hindu-Arabic number system that he would come to realize was far preferable to the cumbersome system of Roman numerals. In 1202, he sat down to compose Liber abbaci (The Book of Calculation), a text that would facilitate business transactions and thus spur commerce of every conceivable type. Keith Devlin's The Man of Numbers recaptures the man behind the numbers we all take for granted.

From the Publisher

“A must-read for anyone interested in the history of math, including undergraduates, mathematicians, and amateur historians.” —Library Journal

“The author…is adept at explaining esoteric concepts at the heart of old arithmetic problems, allowing readers to peer into the mind of a medieval Italian businessman.” —The Wall Street Journal

“A wonderful and vivid tale about the father of modern mathematics” —Shelf Awareness

“Devlin illuminates one of the most remarkable and underappreciated episodes in cultural history… A surprising visit to a forgotten well-spring of modern thought.” —Booklist

“Three cheers for Leonardo Pisano… A wonderful book for history-of-science buffs.” —Kirkus Reviews

Library Journal
Devlin, noted mathematician (Stanford Univ.) and author of more than 30 books (The Language of Mathematics The Math Gene), tells the fascinating story of Fibonacci's mathematical and cultural legacy. Leonardo of Pisa (1170–1240), called Fibonacci by a historian many centuries after his life, was inspired by the newly merging influences of Indian, Hindu-Arabic, and Western number systems. He not only introduced to the West the number sequence 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13…, whereby each number is the sum of the two that precede it, but helped shape the development of modern mathematics and commerce. In an entertaining style, Devlin explains the influence of Liber Abbaci (Book of Calculation), Fibonacci's 600-page work published in manuscript form in 1202. This tome helped make mathematics accessible to 13th-century Italian businessmen and other ordinary people. Fibonacci's introduction to commerce of the digits 0 through 9 prepared the stage for the development of modern symbolic algebra and hence modern mathematics. Devlin writes for a general audience, effectively introducing and explaining basic mathematical concepts, and includes scholarly notes and references. VERDICT A must-read for anyone interested in the history of math, including undergraduates, mathematicians, and amateur historians.—Ian D. Gordon, Brock Univ. Lib., St. Catharines, Ont.
Kirkus Reviews

Three cheers for Leonardo Pisano, nicknamed Fibonacci, heralded by NPR's "Math Guy" Devlin (Mathematics Education for a New Era: Video Games as a Medium for Learning, 2011, etc.)as the man who introduced Hindu-Arabic numbers (0 to 9) and rules of arithmetic to Europe in the 13th century.

The authorwrites that by far the most important contribution that Pisano native made to Western culture was not the Fibonacci numbers (the series in which each term is the sum of the two previous terms, e.g., 1,1,2,3,5,8,13—celebrated inThe Da Vinci Code) but the replacement of Roman numerals with the familiar 10 digits and place notation. That was a boon to merchants and bankers, moneychangers and tax collectors, just when the world was poised for the science and technology discoveries of the Renaissance. It all came about because Pisano's father, a customs official, took his teenage son with him to North Africa, where the boy learned about the numerical system that Arab traders had brought from India. Devlin makes clear that he was not a passive transmitter of new knowledge but a gifted thinker whose magisterialLiber Abaci(Book of Calculation), published in 1202, and later popularizations, as well as works in algebra and geometry, mark him as one of mathematics' great minds. As for the series, Pisano wrote that it was known early on to Indian scholars, and he stated it as a problem to determine how many rabbits a fertile pair would produce in a year "when it is the nature of them in a single month to bear another pair. And in the second month those born to bear also."

A wonderful book for history-of-science buffs that will also amuse math teachers, because the many problems and solutions included are simply medieval versions of the word problems that are the bane of many high-school students.

Product Details

Walker & Company
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
8.26(w) x 5.86(h) x 0.82(d)

Meet the Author

Keith Devlin is a Senior Researcher and Executive Director at Stanford's H-STAR institute, which he co-founded. He is also a Consulting Professor in the Department of Mathematics, and a co-founder of the Stanford Media X research network. NPR's "Math Guy," he is the author of more than twenty-eight books, including The Math Gene. He lives in Palo Alto, California.

Brief Biography

Palo Alto, California
Date of Birth:
March 16, 1947
Place of Birth:
Hull, England
B.S., King's College, London, 1968; Ph.D., University of Bristol, 1971

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Man of Numbers 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
hippypaul More than 1 year ago
In about the year of 1170 a man named Leonardo was born in Pisa. Opening a book he wrote in 1202 he referred to himself as Leonardo Pisano, Family Bonacci, from this Latin phrase filus Bonacci his present day nickname ¿Fibonacci¿ was coined by a historian in 1838. Fibonacci is usually remembered only in connection with the ¿Fibonacci sequence¿ however, in this fine book Keith Devlin carefully outlines his role as a towering figure in the movement of Hindu-Arabic numerals and arithmetic from the southern Mediterranean into Italy where it spread into Europe. The system was known in Italy before Fibonacci was born but it had was little used and not seen as being of value. It was the achievement of Fibonacci in his books to describe the system in terms of the problems encountered by merchants. He provided page after page of problems that involved trade, the measurement of land, the division of profits and the exchange of one form of money for another. Each problem was carefully worked out with the problem described in the text and the numbers presented in red in the margin. Fibonacci had written the first practical math textbook and it was copied over and over again by other authors. With real world examples such as ¿On finding the worth of Florentine Rolls when the worth of those of Genoa is known¿ he had written the first book on the Hindu-Arabic system that had popular appeal. The type of book that we all use to learn basic arithmetic is the direct descendant of this type of writing. The story of the development of math and math learning is very well told in this most enjoyable book. It in no way requires a math background or skills to read and enjoy. I recommend it to anyone who likes a good story of how our world came to be.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is poorly organized and the information is hidden in a jumbled mass of words. It doesn't even talk about the the work of Fibonacci in detail until page 61. It is confusing and takes time talking about unnecessary topics. Overall this book gives very little useful information and that itself is hidden. I would not recommend this book to anyone. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I liked this book. It did a good job of providing some history of the early 1200's, making it easy to understand how Liber Abbaci became so influential. In addition, I learned how difficult it is to do scholarly work on this book. My only suggested changes to "The Man of Numbers" are: (1) include a map, to make it easy to see the locations described in the book and (2) provide some side-by-side examples of math using Roman numbers and using Hindi-Arabic numbers, to make it easy to see how much easier it is to do math by using the latter.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago