The New York Times
Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Ideaby Charles Seife
The Babylonians invented it, the Greeks banned it, the Hindus worshiped it, and the Church used it to fend off heretics. Now it threatens the foundations of modern physics. For centuries the power of zero savored of the demonic; once harnessed, it became the most important tool in mathematics. For zero, infinity's twin, is not like other numbers. It is both nothing… See more details below
The Babylonians invented it, the Greeks banned it, the Hindus worshiped it, and the Church used it to fend off heretics. Now it threatens the foundations of modern physics. For centuries the power of zero savored of the demonic; once harnessed, it became the most important tool in mathematics. For zero, infinity's twin, is not like other numbers. It is both nothing and everything.
In Zero, Science Journalist Charles Seife follows this innocent-looking number from its birth as an Eastern philosophical concept to its struggle for acceptance in Europe, its rise and transcendence in the West, and its ever-present threat to modern physics. Here are the legendary thinkers—from Pythagoras to Newton to Heisenberg, from the Kabalists to today's astrophysicists—who have tried to understand it and whose clashes shook the foundations of philosophy, science, mathematics, and religion. Zero has pitted East against West and faith against reason, and its intransigence persists in the dark core of a black hole and the brilliant flash of the Big Bang. Today, zero lies at the heart of one of the biggest scientific controversies of all time: the quest for a theory of everything.
The New York Times
Washington Post Book World
- Penguin Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.09(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.60(d)
- Age Range:
- 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
Null and Void
Zero hit the USS Yorktown like a torpedo.
On September 21, 1997, while cruising off the coast of Virginia, the billion-dollar missile cruiser shuddered to a halt. Yorktown was dead in the water.
Warships are designed to withstand the strike of a torpedo or the blast of a mine. Though it was armored against weapons, nobody had thought to defend the Yorktown from zero. It was a grave mistake.
The Yorktown's computers had just received new software that was controlling the engines. Unfortunately, nobody had spotted the time bomb lurking in the code, a zero that engineers were supposed to remove while installing the software. But for one reason or another, the zero was overlooked, and it stayed hidden in the code. Hidden, that is, until the software called it into memory-and choked.
When the Yorktown's computer system tried to divide by zero, 80,000 horsepower instantly became worthless. It took nearly three hours to attach emergency controls to the engines, and the Yorktown then limped into port. Engineers spent two days getting rid of the zero, repairing the engines, and putting the Yorktown back into fighting trim.
No other number can do such damage. Computer failures like the one that struck the Yorktown are just a faint shadow of the power of zero. Cultures girded themselves against zero, and philosophies crumbled under its influence, for zero is different from the other numbers. It provides a glimpse of the ineffable and the infinite. This is why it has been feared and hated-and outlawed.
This is the story of zero, from its birth in ancient times to its growth and nourishment in the East, its struggle for acceptance in Europe, its ascendance in the West, and its ever-present threat to modern physics. It is the story of the people who battled over the meaning of the mysterious number-the scholars and mystics, the scientists and clergymen-who each tried to understand zero. It is the story of the Western world's attempts to shield itself unsuccessfully (and sometimes violently) from an Eastern idea. And it is a history of the paradoxes posed by an innocent-looking number, rattling even this century's brightest minds and threatening to unravel the whole framework of scientific thought.
Zero is powerful because it is infinity's twin. They are equal and opposite, yin and yang. They are equally paradoxical and troubling. The biggest questions in science and religion are about nothingness and eternity, the void and the infinite, zero and infinity. The clashes over zero were the battles that shook the foundations of philosophy, of science, of mathematics, and of religion. Underneath every revolution lay a zero-and an infinity.
Zero was at the heart of the battle between East and West. Zero was at the center of the struggle between religion and science. Zero became the language of nature and the most important tool in mathematics. And the most profound problems in physics-the dark core of a black hole and the brilliant flash of the big bang-are struggles to defeat zero.
Yet through all its history, despite the rejection and the exile, zero has always defeated those who opposed it. Humanity could never force zero to fit its philosophies. Instead, zero shaped humanity's view of the universe-and of God.
From Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, Charles Seife. (c) January 2000, Charles Seife used by permission.
What People are saying about this
Charles Seife has made a marvelously entertaining something out of nothing. By simply telling the tale of zero, Seife provides a fresh and fascinating history not only of mathematics but also of science, philosophy, theology, and even art. An impressive debut for a promising young science writer.
Zero: The Biography Of A Dangerous Idea describes with good humor and wonder how one digit has bedeviled and fascinated thinkers from ancient Athens to Los Alamos. Charles Seife deftly argues that the concept of nothingness and its show-off twin, infinity, have repeatedly revolutionized the foundations of civilization and philosophical thought. If you're already a fan of mathematics or science, you will enjoy this book; if you're not, you will be by the time you finish it.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >