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Book Review: Man of Numbers by Dr. Keith Devlin

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Blurbs on the book jacket inform me that Dr. Keith Devlin is “the math guy” at National Public Radio. Devlin’s intellectual and professional credentials are impressive. Among other achievements he is an author of considerable experience having written some 30 books. Now Devlin offers us a new title: The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution.

I should first say that Man of Numbers is knowledge presented correctly. Of the book’s 183 numbered pages, 158 are text followed by 8 pages of notes, a 6-page bibliography and a useful, 10-page index. Regarding format, even Kate Turabian could not fault Man of Numbers.

To the laity (that’s folks like you and me) the bibliography is positively terrifying — which is to say that Dr. Devlin did a stellar job on his homework. Sources cited include 13th- and 14th-century mathematics texts in the form of illuminated manuscripts that were hand-copied by medieval monks in Latin.

So it is that while I know not what course others may take, nobody will catch this writer checking the verity Dr. Devlin’s assertions. I’m pleased to take his word for every fact published in Man of Numbers, and I hereby award him an A+ for research. Devlin also writes a fine hand; so it may therefore seem odd that, as someone who reads for pleasure, I cannot recommend this book to most readers.

My primary beef is that Man of Numbers is a book for those who are deeply interested in math trivia and the history of math but not for those who enjoy biography or history in general. “Man of Numbers” and “Fibonacci” get star billing in the title but, fact is, the whole book contains just enough hard facts about Fibonacci the man to make a decent-sized caption under a picture of Fibonacci in Who’s Who.

The overwhelming majority of what’s in this book is concerned with algebra, with the evolution of algebra, and with those (mostly unknown men) whose work helped speed the evolution of algebra.

I should add, too, that Fibonacci’s alleged role in speeding the advancement of algebra is not proven in this book but is rather inferred from allusive evidence that, for the most part, appears in this, that, or the other medieval manuscript. And while the inferences may be numerous (they are) and garnered from serious scholarship (they are), inferences and allusions are not hard evidence. There is room yet for some unknown Gradgrind to come roaring in from the outfield and knock Fibonacci out of the box in which present-day history places him.

I personally understand the importance of math and enjoyed some juicy bits of trivia I found in the book (the insurance business is the child of pirates and extortionists.) But I don’t give a snap for the study of math. I bought this book because I took it for a biography of Fibonacci, which it is not. Long, dreary pages of antique math problems made this a tedious read for me.

Solomon sez: Man of Numbers is not for general readers but could be a hit with math lovers. Four stars for a good job that I didn’t like much.

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About Deacon "Deke" Solomon