Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Blockhead!!! (The Life of Fibonacci)

How excited was I to find out that there was a biography of Fibonacci coming out for kids? VERY. Ever since Fibs went viral, I've gotten lots of questions about Fibonacci here and done research of my own... but nothing like what's gone into Joseph D'Agnese's book (with truly wonderful illustrations by John O'Brien, examples of which dot this post). So it not only filled a need for me but was also was the type of book I knew I'd've loved as a kid.

When I saw that it was called Blockhead: the Life of Fibonacci and then later read the story of its journey to print, I became kinda swoony fanboy about it. And I knew... just knew... I had to ask the author some questions. So I did, and better still, he answered them! So now you get not only my huge fandom, but also much more. Here then are my questions, and Joe D'Agnese's answers....

What led you to write the story of Fibonacci for kids rather than adults? I mean, I’d’ve read this as a kid or adult… but what pushed you that way?

Two things pushed me to do this book for kids. I first learned about the Fibonacci Sequence when I was working as an editor for a 5th- and 6th-grade children's educational math magazine called Scholastic DynaMath. Every couple of years at DynaMath, it's time to do an article on the Fibonacci Sequence. But these articles were always short and they didn't allow me much room to tell everything I was learning about Leonardo the man. I thought a picture book was an obvious choice. After all, the sequence is inherently visual, and the medieval setting is rich and visual too. 
The second thing that pushed me to write for kids is my own innumeracy. I'm not a mathematician, and one really needs to be a number theorist to write an adult book about Fibonacci's contributions to mathematics. By the way, I think my illustrator, John O'Brien, did an amazing job with making Fibonacci's world come to life. Part of the fun of reading the book is looking for all the little Fibonacci objects that John hid in the artwork. How two guys from New Jersey ended up bringing a medieval Italian mathematician to life is probably the book's biggest mystery!

I had always thought of Fibonacci only in terms of the sequence that now bears his name. But he was well known for so much beyond that, wasn’t he?
Yes! Absolutely! He is recognized as one of the most important mathematicians of the western world during the middle ages. His contribution is a huge one: He helped import Hindu-Arabic numerals from the east to the west. That's the part of the story that fascinated me from the beginning. Here's this young boy growing up in Tuscany, where they use Roman numerals. And then his father, who is a customs official, takes him to Algeria, North Africa, to do accounting work, and lo and behold, the young Fibonacci discovers that the wise men of this land are using not I, II, III but 1, 2, 3. And they are using zero, and have an understanding of something called place value. Fibonacci quickly realizes the significance, the importance and efficacy of these numerals and shares them with the western world. I've read some of his writings and they are clearly the work of a brilliant, serious mind. 
Some historians argue that were it not for Fibonacci's work, the economic thrust that drove the Renaissance would not have been possible. He showed the west how to do its books.
Actuaries, stock traders, knitters, and others use the Fibonacci sequence, and there’s even a band named the Fibonaccis. Were there any great places you found Fibonacci or his numbers pop up?

The wackiest thing I've ever heard is the cosmetic dentist who claimed to use the Fibonacci Sequence to create the perfect smile on his patients' faces. I myself have spent most of my time seeking out Fibonacci numbers in nature because I like to garden and I'm always astonished to see how often the Sequence pops up. 
I think teachers and parents might have fun planting a Fibonacci Garden, where they plant flowers likely to produce flowers that grow in the sequence. And I would plant the garden in a spiral shape. Sunflowers could go in the center of the spiral because they are the tallest, and then you can work your way down to shorter plants. I haven't spotted Fibonacci in strange places. More like strange minds! In other words, I can't believe how many different types of people know a little about Fibonacci. Artists, illustrators, designers, web designers all seem to know him. But then so do a lot of engineers I've met. As do musicians, architects, photographers, and many others. If your work touches on some aspect of aesthetics, you probably know a little about Fibonacci.

One of the most frequent questions I get in comments here is “Did Fibonacci have a wife and kids?” So I gotta know… can people find an answer to that in Blockhead (even if the answer is “no one knows”)?

Well, you see, what happened was, Mr. and Mrs. Fibonacci had twins, and then they had triplets. After that, Mrs. F. refused to have more kids because she could see which way this was going. It was tough to have quints in the 13th century. But seriously, folks, the sad thing about the Fibonacci story is that we know very little about him. He wrote a one-paragraph autobiography in one of his books, and that's how we know about his early life, his father, and his travels. We do have his mathematical writings. And there is evidence that people in his hometown of Pisa regarded him as a learned and worthy man because there are records showing they paid him to perform work for the city. But after that, we know nothing more. We don't know when he was born, when he died, or if he ever had a family. 
We do know that during his lifetime he never used the name Fibonacci. That name was coined by later mathematicians who experimented with the Sequence. In his day, Leonardo called himself Leonardo Pisano, aka Leonard of Pisa; or Leonardo, son of Bonaccio. He also had an odd nickname that he used in his writings: Bigollus. This probably means wanderer, dreamer, traveler, lazy good-for-nothing, etc. For my book, I interpreted this as "Blockhead." I think his neighbors were doing the typical Italian thing, gently teasing him for being an absent-minded prof. 

Greg, I want to thank you for you having me visit, and thank you for presenting the world with the wonderful concept of Fibs. I'm sure that if Fibonacci were around, he'd warmly embrace the idea of poetry being used to celebrate the glory of numbers!

And I want to thank Joe for taking the time to answer my questions (and making me laugh in the process, no less!) and for being tenacious enough to bring Fibonacci's story into print. I am thrilled this book is out in the world, and hope you are, too!


Colleen said...

I thought this was a great book too - and my son really enjoyed it as well. I can't remember learning about Fibonacci when I was a kid and was really happy to find a title that explained the man and his discovery in a way that an 8 year old could understand.

I reviewed it for Eclectica Magazine - should be up soon in the Spring issue.

tanita✿davis said...

WOW! This is quite possibly the coolest thing, ever. I wonder if I would have been better at math if I'd actually been interested and informed about the bright lights who made it possible. Like Collen, I never heard of Fibonacci in school at all.

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks, Greg, for hosting this interview. I first learned of this book on the INK blog, and I'm happy to read more about it here. Congratulations again to Joe on doing such a great job in bringing Fibonacci's story to young readers.

Sarah Campbell said...

Good interview. I like this book a lot and I'm sure my sons would have eaten it up when they were younger.

BookMoot said...

This is one of those times when you think, why hasn't there been a book like this about Fibonacci before? How perfect that you interviewed him here. My kind of book.

Anonymous said...

Very cool, Greg!

Don, Devas T.

Greg Pincus said...

Thanks for the comments, y'all. And I agree a book like this shoulda existed long ago... but reading Joe's story, it's clearer why it didn't!

(You can read another interview with Joe at Sarah Campbell's blog to see even more of the story)

Daniel Teeter said...

Glad to see you mentioned the band (and surprised!). There was also well-known Italian artist (well, to art geeks) Mario Merz who may've had an obsessive use of Fibonacci in his work. This makes me think of other possibilities of picture books about people who've had great (and not so great) inventions named after them: Jacuzzi, Guillotine, Gatling, Heimlich, etc.

Thanks, Greg!