The Man of Numbers by Keith Devlin

Man of NumbersInformation

Goodreads: The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution
Source: Library
Published: 2011

Summary

Devlin examines the impact of the arithmetic book of Leonardo of Pisa, commonly known as Fibonacci.

Review

I picked up this book with the mistaken impression that it told the life of Fibonacci and, consequently, found myself disappointed.  As Devlin explains, history knows very little about Fibonacci; generally, we know only that his real name was Leonardo of Pisa, that he travelled to Africa while a teen (and learned there the Hindu-Arabic number system), that he wrote quite a few books on mathematics (one of which inspired Europe to adopt the Hindu-Arabic number system), and that he was considered important as a result.  Add a few more random details like visits to emperors and what his father did for a living, and you have just about everything.  So, of course, I found myself wondering how the author managed to get 158 pages out of it.

Had I read the subtitle more carefully, I might have suspected that the book does not focus on the life of Fibonacci, but on the results of his publications, particularly his Liber abbaci, which taught how to use the Hindu-Arabic number system in everyday situations.  That means that Devlin devotes chapters to topics like the sources Fibonacci used to write his book or the books that his book inspired.  Other full chapters illustrate in detail the methods Fibonacci used to calculate (notation was different then and explanations of problems we would find simple needed pages of explanations).  Not being a historian of mathematics, I found myself rather bored by the lists of book titles, the intricacies of which author wrote which manuscript, and, above all, the multitude of lengthy quotations from Liber abbaci.  After the first two or three, I felt like I’d gotten it—it took Fibonacci an insufferably long time to explain stuff.

If you are the type of person interested in the question of whose mathematic manuscript inspired whose, this book will no doubt appeal to you.  (If, on the other hand, this concept seems strange to you, consider that students of literature often try to decipher what works inspired various authors—the question really does matter to some people.)  I, however, found myself longing for other information—if not biographical details, then maybe some more information on everyday life in medieval Pisa or an explanation of what other mathematic and scientific advances were occurring around that time.  Expecting to discover Fibonacci, I was disappointed to discover his absence.

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One + One = Blue by MJ Auch

One Plus One Equals BlueGoodreads: One + One = Blue
Source: ARC received from publisher in exchange for an honest review

Official Summary: Twelve year-old Basil knows he’s special—he’s been associating numbers with colors since he was a kid. His gift (or curse) has turned him into somewhat of a loner, but his world begins to change when he meets Tenzie, the new girl in school who has similar freakisms. She, too, has synesthesia (a condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another). At first, Basil is somewhat annoyed with Tenzie’s pushiness, but after Basil’s estranged mother returns, his life is turned upside down . . . and Tenzie may be the only person to help him put it back together again.

Once again, MJ Auch has written a thoughtful coming-of-age novel that explores friendship, family, and fitting in.

Review: One + One = Blue is an exceptional book with a unique tone and story.  It dives right into Basil’s story and right into his differences.  It does not focus on Basil’s synesthesia however.  Instead, synesthesia is in the background, a part of Basil’s life that makes him special, that gives him both trouble and advantages, but which is never his defining feature.  The true story here is that of Basil’s’s relationships, particularly with Tenzie and with his mother.

This approach is perfect, as it demonstrates to young readers that a character and a life are made of many parts.  Bullies may pick out one thing to mock, but bullies are short-sighted.  Putting synesthesia towards the background takes something away from the book only once.  Tenzie casually mentions that she is able to use her number/color associations to help her with math, but her explanation of a rainbow grid is a little vague.  Readers interested in mathematics or synesthesia would love to learn more about Tenzie’s process and Auch misses a great opportunity to explain possible benefits or creative uses by glossing over the moment.

One + One = Blue is a little gritty and a little glamorous and a little weird.  It is action-packed and it is funny.  It addresses a lot of tough issues, including Basil’s differences and his dealing with an unstable absent mother, but all these issues are treated with care and humor.  Kids who are different themselves, or who are artsy, or who are daring will fall in love with Auch’s work and with her characters.

This is a special book, chronicling the life of a normal kid who faces crazy circumstances, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes foolishly, and sometimes bravely.  It ultimately demonstrates the beauty of differences, of passion, of love, and of friendship.  The world of One + One = Blue is a little insane, but entirely wonderful.

Publication Date: April 30, 2013

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott

FlatlandGoodreads: Flatland

Summary: A square from a world of two dimensions explains the customs of his land and his life-changing encounter with a sphere.

Review: My understanding is that Abbott meant this book to function as a satire of Victorian society—hence, the ridiculously sexist and classist nature of Flatland.  However, though I found Flatland intriguing, I did not continue to read for the social commentary, but for the mathematical fun.  From the descriptions of how shapes recognize one another in a two-dimensional world (everyone appears as a line segment) to the depiction of Pointland, Flatland brims with mathematical humor and wit.

The first half of the book deals with Flatland and its inhabitants, customs, and history.  Though this proves vaguely interesting, the narrator skips over the types of questions I most wanted to learn about—how the shapes move without feet and build houses or write letters without hands.  The repression of women and the follies of the aristocracy provide some scandalous material, but I had trouble buying it all without knowing how these shapes do anything without limbs.  Some pertinent background information would have greatly helped my attention.  As it was, I had to make a conscious effort to suspend my disbelief and I was never certain the history of the color rebellion was worth it.

The second half of the book really makes reading worthwhile.  The descent of a sphere into Flatland introduces our narrator square to the concept of three-dimensions, though, of course, he initially finds this as difficult to grasp as we do the fourth-dimension.  A hilarious give-and-take between the sphere and the square ensues.  Once the square experiences three-dimensionality for himself, however, he can make the mental leap to fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, infinite dimensions.  If this seems crazy, readers only have to think back to the square’s former ignorance and suddenly the world seems full of possibility.

Lovers of mathematics should not pass this book by; the slog through the history of Flatland is well worth it to arrive at an exploration of some great mathematical concepts.  Abbott then turns mathematics into a fascinating, but troubling, commentary on society and its resistance to new ideas.  An insightful, eye-opening, yet humorous book.

Published: 1884

The Dot and the Line by Norton Juster

Goodreads: The Dot and the Line

Summary: A line falls hopelessly in love with a dot, but she cares only for a squiggle.  Adapted in 1965 into an animated short film for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Review: Wordplay and puns abound in this cute little story that chronicles the love triangle of a dot, a line, and a squiggle.  The upright line quickly gains the sympathies of the readers as he forms a plan to win the heart of his beloved.  Though readers can already tell the line can find a worthier object for his affection than the fickle dot, his belief in her and his determination to make her notice him proves irresistibly charming.  He has a certain idealism and a large imagination that show he is not as boring as the dot believes.  He, in short, makes the love story of mathematical concepts not only plausible, but also interesting.

Juster clearly has fun incorporating mathematical concepts into his story, and his delight in math and language proves contagious.  The story is, in turn, funny, touching, silly, and heartwarming.  Some sort of joke about math appears on nearly every page, and looking for them proves one of the highlights of the story.  Recognizing and understanding the references connects the readers with the author—it is as if Juster shared this ridiculous pun just with you because he knew you would enjoy it.

The Dot and the Line never grows olds.  In every rereading, the puns prove just as funny as they were the first time.  The sheer joy of playing with language transmits itself each time.  The story may be short, but it manages to fit all the elements to create  a charming romance.

Published: 1963