Monday, August 15, 2011

The Elegant Story of Math In Nature: “Blockhead, The Life of Fibonacci”

I’ve always been a little afraid of math. I wish Joseph D’Agnese’s wonderful book was around when I was a kid, and I’m glad I’ll be able to share this with my own child. Beautifully illustrated by John O’Brien, Blockhead is the story of “The Leonardo of Pisa” known as Fibonacci. He’s the mathematician who discovered the series of numbers that describes the building blocks of nature that can be seen in the spiral of a seashell or the petals of a flower.

As a young man, Fibonacci was thought to be a “blockhead” but turned out to be anything but. D’Agnese explains Fibonacci’s mathematical concepts in language that makes it easy to grasp. There’s a sensitivity to a young reader’s vocabulary but D’Agnese doesn’t “dumb down” the story. (He’s lucky Fibonacci lived in Pisa and not Pino sulla Sponda del Lago Maggiore.)

When Fibonacci travels to North Africa with his merchant father, he’s introduced to Hindu-Arabic numerals and his world opens up. He becomes something of a math tourist, gleaning mathematical practices from different cultures around the world. But it’s the connection between numbers and nature that makes this book an emotional and intellectual revelation. And the character of Fibonacci is loveable. What kid (or adult for that matter) can’t relate to someone who’s basically misunderstood and much smarter than anyone imagines? Been there, right? ;) This book is a great read and a wonderful mathematical conversation-starter for parents and kids. I highly recommend it.

Joe was kind enough to answer a few questions for us:

Media Darlings: When did you first become aware of the life and work of Fibonacci?
Joseph D’Agnese: One of my earliest jobs in publishing was writing for and editing a children’s math magazine at Scholastic Inc. I’m sorry to say that I’d never heard of the man known in his lifetime as Leonardo of Pisa or the famous sequence named after him until I got to this job. Every other year or so, the magazine did an article about Fibonacci. But it was never enough for me. I wanted more. So I wrote the book as a way of learning more about him.

MD: What attracts you to his story?
JD: Fibonacci lived in Italy during the Middle Ages, about 800 years ago. My Italian-American heritage and my still-unexplained fascination with that period of time guaranteed that I’d become obsessed with his story. Imagine: At a time in history when most people never traveled beyond the cities where they were born, this guy was traveling the world in search of mathematics, not filthy lucre. That’s an amazing story in almost any age.

MD: The Fibonacci Sequence seemingly cracks the code of how nature “builds” plants and sea shells. Are there other places where we can see Fibonacci’s numbers in nature?
JD: Kids can best observe Fibonacci numbers in plants by counting flower petals and the shapes of leaves. Spirals suggestive of the Fibonacci sequence appear in a variety of plants too, such as sunflowers, pinecones and pineapples. If you’re looking for a stretch, you could even argue that the human body displays Fibonacci numbers. People tend to have two eyes, two nostrils, two ears, and series of fives on their hands and feet.

Believe it or not, the Sequence itself was first “discovered” by Indian mathematicians who worked centuries before Fibonacci. Despite the fantasy described in my book, the real Fibonacci apparently never knew the significance of the numbers he worked into a single mathematical word problem in one of his books. Later mathematicians named it after Leonardo, cobbling together a nickname for him, Fibonacci, from the remnants of his real name: “filius Bonacci” (son of Bonacci or Bonaccio.)

So Fibonacci sort of became the unwitting adopted “uncle” of the Sequence, importing them to the western world and popularizing them.

MD: You mentioned that there are several Fibonacci projects in print right now. How did this resurgence in interest in his life come about? (Did YOU bring this about?)
JD: I certainly can’t claim credit for the current boom in Fibonacci literature. I just like that it’s happening. It means that a lot of children will be growing up hearing about the Sequence than ever before. One of my favorites (for kids) is Growing Patterns by Sarah Campbell. Adults will enjoy a slim little volume called The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution by NPR’s Math Guy, Keith Devlin.

MD: Your book, Blockhead, tells the story of a boy who had a great love of numbers and math. Did you like math when you were in grammar school? High school?
JD: I had an irrational fear of both math and science when I was in elementary school. I say irrational because my grades in both of these subjects weren’t bad. It was as if my reaction to math didn’t mesh with the reality of math. That changed quite a bit when I got to high school, and I fell in love with the logic inherent in algebra, trig, calculus and geometry. But my passion for those subjects was not enough to compel me to study those subjects in college. The great ironic joke of my life has been that much of my career as a journalist has been writing for math and science magazines.

MD: How did you come to work with the math magazines at Scholastic? What was your mission there?
JD: It was just a lark that I ended up working at this really creative, stimulating place as the time in my life when I was most open to new experiences. Everyone knows that math textbooks can’t cover everything it would be nice to teach kids. And those books are rarely current. Scholastic’s math magazines, where I worked once upon a time, serve as a supplement to the regular math curriculum. Each month, they toss out some fun activities for kids that are tied to real-life applications and pop culture.

MD: Why do you think there is a fear or aversion to this subject? Are parents inadvertently passing their own fears/anxieties to their kids?
JD: I suspect it’s a mix of nature and nurture. One of my genius scientist friends tells me that human beings are, by design, wired to do addition and subtraction fairly well, but have trouble when they have to deal with the big numbers inherent in multiplication and division. But that’s okay. That’s why we invented mathematics; it’s a tool that’s supposed to help us deal with the tough stuff. I can’t speak for other cultures, but I do know that American citizens unknowingly struggle daily with innumeracy. Millions of us aren’t comfortable with numbers, statistics, probability and computation. That makes us sitting ducks when politicians start throwing out facts and figures that can impact our lives. We are easily bamboozled. I am uncomfortable when parents tell me their child “loves” math. By implication, they are suggesting that this is unusual. It’s not. Kids are inherently curious about their world; math is just a handy way of making sense of what’s around us.

MD: How can parents help their kids excel at math, or at least lose their fear of math?
JD: Younger kids should be exposed to counting books as regularly as any other type of picture books. With older kids, you ought to try to work math logically into family discussions where it makes sense. Just asking your kid to help plan recipes, determine how much you’re paying per pound for some item at the grocery store, or help you understand a chart or graph in a newspaper can have a huge impact.

MD: Where/how can people buy your book?
JD: I’m fortunate in that this book is available almost anywhere in North America, wherever books are sold. It’s also been translated into a couple of languages so you might be able to find a foreign language edition elsewhere. If you want an autographed copy, there’s only one way to get it. Call this bookstore in my hometown and they’ll hook you up.

Just for fun:

MD: What was your favorite TV show when you were a kid?
JD: Anything involving Bugs Bunny. I probably aspired to be a smart-alecky, world-traveling wabbit. No wonder Fibonacci’s rabbit problem meant so much to me.

MD: What character would you like to be?
JD: Uh, what’s up, doc?

MD: What was the first book you remember really loving?
JD: There were two, for two different reasons. Charlotte’s Web was the first big book I read on my own, in a night, because I just had to know how it ended. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler introduced me to the pleasures of mysteries, and I’m still hooked on them.

MD: Do you remember being read to as a child? Favorite book from that era?
JD: Yes. And I remember correcting my parent’s pronunciation too. We had a good collection of Dr. Seuss. My most requested was probably Horton Hears a Who.

MD: What’s in your DVD player right now?
JD: I’m currently re-watching the entire Mad Men series.

MD: What’s your favorite smart phone app?
JD: I’ve just discovered that I can read books on my phone. The screen is ridiculously small, so I don’t like to do it except in a pinch. But still: books on a phone! I’ll never be bored while waiting somewhere ever again.

Find out more about author and journalist Joseph D'Agnese here.

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