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The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci's Arithmetic Revolutions

Keith Devlin
Walker & Company
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Charles Ashbacher
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In 1202, a book was published that started a slow revolution that was too powerful for the forces of mathematical conservatism to resist. Authored by Leonardo of Pisa (better known as Fibonacci), it introduced the modern numeration system to Europe. At the time, commercial calculations were carried out using either an abacus or a finger counting method and then recorded using Roman numerals. This left no record of the computation, requiring any disputes regarding errors to be settled by having to completely redo the computations in front of the principals.

The incredible simplicity and computational power provided by the Hindu-Arabic numerals (0–9 with positional notation) led to a relatively rapid conversion to the new system. It is not an overstatement to say that the use of this system made modern commerce possible.

Devlin does an excellent job in explaining the consequences of this system, Leonardo’s role in the introduction and is candid in acknowledging the gaps in the historical record. The book is written in a popular and engaging style, the general population will have no trouble understanding and appreciating it. While there are a few formulas, skipping them will generate no gaps in understanding the value of the “new” number system. This is a book that would an excellent addition to the high school mathematics curriculum. It is understandable and the history is significant.

Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, teaching college classes and co-editing The Journal of Recreational Mathematics. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.

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