Pisa’s Mathy Bonehead

April 25, 2010 / Local Interest
Pisa, Tuscany
fibonacci2Every time you slice a pepper, halve an apple or find a shell on the beach, you ought to think of a genius named Leonardo of Pisa, the greatest western mathematician of the Middle Ages.

Leonardo Pisano imported number theory from Arabic culture to Western Europe. He helped convert us from I-II-III to 1-2-3.

He is best remembered for a word problem about multiplying rabbits, and a famous number sequence, which begins 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233…

fibonacci3The numbers pop up in nature. Clovers have three leaves. Starfish have five arms. Apples sliced side-to-side reveal a five-pointed star. Sliced limes and lemons often yield eight wedges. Many flowers have 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, or 34 petals. The numbers even dictate the shape of fiddlehead ferns, shells, ocean waves, spiral nebulae, sunflower heads, pinecones, and pineapples—proof that nature loves math.

Leonardo himself never knew the numbers were special.

He went by the nickname, Bigollus. The modern word, bighellone, means wanderer, good-for-nothing, loafer, absent-minded, or daydreamer. He may have dazzled the court of Emperor Frederick II, but Leo was just an absent-minded professor to his fellow Pisani.

Next time you’re in Pisa, look for Leonardo’s statue in the Camposanto, the famous cemetery, and whisper, “Che Bighellone!


– Contributed by Joseph D’Agnese, author of the children’s picture book, Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci. Follow him at www.blockheadbook.com

10 Responses to “Pisa’s Mathy Bonehead”

  1. Evanne

    Bravo! This is the most amazing story I’ve read in I N. Can’t wait to get the book…and to read it with our grand children. Many thanks.

  2. I had a wonderful time with this! I thought it was so interesting that I looked up the author and the illustrator and saw the wonderful bookcover. But strangely the name of Fibonacci isn’t mentioned in the Italian Notebook article.

  3. Pat Ceccarelli
    Pat Ceccarelli

    I like this one!! Am forwarding it to my math friends here in UK- also will look up the book when I arrive in Pisa (hurrah!) this week- flights permitting.

  4. Thanks for these great comments! Forgive me for not mentioning Fibonacci’s name, but believe it or not, he never used that name in real life. He went mostly by Leonardo Pisanus or Leonardo Bigollus. Later mathematicians of the 19th century coined the name “Fibonacci” from one of his other bylines, Leonardus filius Bonaccii—“son of Bonaccio,” most likely.

    The book is published by an American publisher and is available online at bookstores eveyrwherei n the USA and online via mail-order booksellers. In Italy, look for it at the Almost Corner Bookshop, Via Del Moro, 45 in Rome. I don’t know if Pisan booksellers are carrying it.


  5. Joseph D. Spano
    Joseph D. Spano

    More of such stories that touch life as this are needed…Dreamers are special as they have heart to move our hearts!

  6. nelia ruiz

    My latest godson might be a little too young to appreciate the book, but I think I will get it for him just the same and start him off on being interested in Math and its wonderful “appearances” in nature. Sometimes,it takes just a tiny spark to start off someone on the journey of a lifetime.

    Thank you for your article – it was informative and enjoyable.

  7. Stef Smulders

    Very nice note! I happen to have done a little study on Leonardo a few years ago, but I’ll have to look it up to remember what my conclusions were. Your book seems great fun, I read about the perilous journey to italy on your site. Fibonacci numbers are world famous nowadays since Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (in which he does disappointingly little with them, however). Thanks!

  8. Very cool – I’d never known anything about the person behind the Fibonacci sequence of numbers, nor did I realize he didn’t use that name during his lifetime! Thanks for the interesting info. Is there a way to order the book from here in Northern Italy?


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