“Simply a joy to read” – Fibonacci’s Rabbits and 49 Other Discoveries that Revolutionised Mathematics by Adam Hart-Davis

“In 332 BCE Alexander the Great founded the Greek city of Alexandria, at the mouth of the Nile in Egypt. Alexandria became the centre of learning in the Greek world, and a magnificent library was built up, containing hundreds of thousands of scrolls… Around 240 BCE a new librarian was appointed – Eratosthenes of Cyrene, a mathematician who devised a method of finding prime numbers. As librarian, Eratosthenes was energetic, borrowing great works of literature, having them copied and then (on Ptolemy’s orders) returning the copies, while retaining the originals.”

Why are there sixty seconds in a minute? What is pi? How big is the earth? Could a lot of monkeys write Shakespeare?

Mathematics…the very word sends shivers down spines. But maths – individual mathematicians, working with little more than parchment, quill and a roving mind, are behind some of *the* most fundamental ‘eureka’ moments in humankind’s history. Not convinced? Fibonacci sequence numbers (which give the book its title) are, in a literal sense, found in nature – in petals, and the scales of pinecones. Zooming right out, it was the stargazing Sumerians, observing patterns move on incrementally each night, who gave us the 365-day solar year.

In writing Fibonacci’s Rabbits and 49 Other Discoveries that Revolutionised Mathematics, the author and broadcaster Adam Hart-Davis would have faced challenges – firstly, from the whole history of mathematics, how to pick just fifty ‘magic moments’? Ones not only with impact, but which illustrate a continuum – bring to life an unbroken chain of human endeavour, starting from before recorded history, and moving right up to modern times? And then, how to convey the immensity of those achievements, without intimidating, patronising or losing the lay reader?

For the writer of ‘popular science’, the middle-path is treacherously slim – veer into esoterica and eyes will glaze over. But then soft-peddle visibly and you’ll be accused of dumbing-down. In Fibonacci’s Rabbits, the author deserves huge credit for negotiating these pitfalls. Through imaginative selection and an absolutely perfect structure – one which gives no more than three pages per discovery – the author nails his brief. Within each item, the micro-structure is equally flawless, with scene-setting including humorous titbits / factoids, bringing the reader ‘closer’ to the time, place and figures involved, making them seem less other-worldly. Hart-Davis conveys the immensity of these moments – and something of the beauty of the mathematics – without doing any real maths.

Any Cop?: In Fibonacci’s Rabbits, Hart-Davis wants us to see that we stand on the shoulders of giants – and he succeeds without qualification. The book is perfectly sized, beautifully written and lovingly illustrated – it’s simply a joy to read. Buy it, absorb it, hold onto it…then gift it to a young one. Who knows what it’ll spark?

 

 Tamim Sadikali

 

 

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