Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea [NOOK Book]

Overview

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 ...
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Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

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Overview

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.


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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
A concise and engaging look at the oddest number in the universe.

Not many books begin with cavemen carving notches on wolf bones and end with spaceships dipping through space in wormholes.

ZERO: THE BIOGRAPHY OF A DANGEROUS IDEA tells the story of the most perplexing number on earth and the havoc it's wreaked on religion, science, and the imagined character of the universe. The innocent-looking number, first used by the Babylonians to make their counting system work on paper, has terrified philosophers and tortured physicists seeking to understand the laws of space and time. Anyone puzzling over the big bang theory, black holes or the fate of our expanding galaxy must reckon with the contradictory physics of nothingness.

With wonderfully engaging science writing, author Charles Seife traces the origins and history of the number zero. In the Middle Ages it took center stage on the battleground among religious clerics, who had to choose between the idea that God created the universe out of nothing and the prevailing theory that the planets revolved around the sun. During the scientific revolution, the fact that zero causes equations to explode gave mathematicians fits.

For centuries, cavemen counting sheep or Egyptians calculating the area of farmland flooded by the Nile didn't need it. With numerical systems designed to measure things in the real world, there wasn't much need for an integer signifying nothing. As numerical systems became more abstract, the number zero became a useful tool. But to Greek philosophers, who imagined that the universe was a finite shell madeupof ringed spheres that made music as they moved, the idea of nothingness was heretical. It questioned the existence of God, and they avoided dealing with zero.

Scribes in India were more comfortable with the concept of nothingness, Seife writes. In Hinduism, spiritual enlightenment means leaving behind the body and becoming a part of the infinite soul. Zero also became a part of that culture's numeric system, which formed the basis of the Arabic system we use today. As trade and banking demanded more efficient tallying systems, the Christian world gave up on Roman numerals and adopted the numbers we recognize, including zero.

With prose geared towards those of us who slept our way through high school physics, Seife traces its influence on the scientific revolution that followed the dark ages. As mathematicians invented calculus, algebra, projective geometry, and set theory, they were forced to reckon with the quirky things that number did to their equations. When you divide one by zero, the answer is infinity. Certain equations reach a point where a function blows up or a mathematical curve starts behaving wildly as it approaches a number. But over time, as math became more abstract, they learned to explain and embrace the bizarre behavior of zero.

The concepts of zero and infinity have been equally useful and paradoxical tools in describing the laws of nature. They converge in the existence of black holes, a single point so dense it bends the continuum of space and time so dramatically that nothing escapes once it falls in. Scientists have debated whether the universe will expand into infinity, dying an icy death, or collapse in on itself, leaving nothing behind.

Weaving together ancient drama and up-to-date science, ZERO is a fresh and engaging read for historians, philosophers, mathematicians, physicists, or anyone willing to bend their mind around the questions of being, nothingness and the end of the world as we know it. —Jennifer Langston covers science and the environment for a daily newspaper in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Edward Rothstein
Mr. Seife is the United States correspondent for New Scientist and recounts his story as an accomplished science journalist, standing on the outside bringing clarity to complex ideas.... Mr. Seife also gracefully surveys the weirdness of modern physics, where vacuums exert pressure and notions of 'zero-point energy' inspire fantasies of space travel.
The New York Times
Paul Hoffman
Seife tells stories of mathematicians involved in the denial or promotion of zero that are as incredible as the plot of Pi.... If the popularizers of mathematics continue to churn out such bizarre stories, math has a secure place in mass culture, able to compete with the wildest fare served up by Jerry Springer and the tabloids.
Time Magazine
Curt Suplee
When nothing finally arrived, it changed everything. That is the theme of Charles Seife's lively and lucid history of zero and its many cognitive embodiments as symbol, tool and concept. It's a story that richly deserves telling in this three-cipher year. And Seife, a Washington correspondent for New Scientist, makes it a fascinating and memorable tale.
Washington Post Book World
Library Journal
This is a very light treatment of big ideas. In the first chapters, Seife, a correspondent for New Scientist, skims over the historical and intellectual development of zero, covered more thoughtfully in Robert Kaplan's The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero (LJ 10/1/99). Seife then stresses the connections between zero and infinity and explains calculus, quantum mechanics, relativity, the Big Bang, and string theory to show that they depend on zero and infinity. This is much too much ground to cover when the reader is assumed not to know basic algebra, and the book's central claim becomes very weak, not saying much more than that string theory requires the system of modern mathematics. The prose style reflects Seife's occupation as a science journalist: fast-paced and colorful but repetitious, oversimplified, and exaggerated ("Not only does zero hold the secret to our existence, it will also be responsible for the end of the universe"). Recommended for larger public libraries, while smaller libraries on a budget should acquire Kaplan's book. [BOMC selection.]--Kristine Fowler, Mathematics Lib., Univ. of Minnesota, Minneapolis Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
The Babylonians invented it, the Greeks banned it, the Hindus worshipped it, and the Christian Church used it to fend off heretics. Seife, a US correspondent for the international magazine , follows the number zero from its birth as an Eastern philosophical concept to its struggle for acceptance in Europe and its apotheosis as the mystery of a black hole. He describes the work and thought of scholars, mystics, and cosmologists as they battled over the meaning of this mysterious number. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781101199602
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 9/1/2000
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 101,039
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author


Charles Seife, a journalist with Science magazine, has also written for New Scientist, Scientific American, The Economist, Wired UK, and The Sciences, among many other publications. His previous titles include Alpha & Omega and Zero. He received an MS in Probability Theory and Artificial Intelligence from Yale.



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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 0
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.
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Table of Contents

Ch. 0 Null and Void 1
Ch. 1 Nothing Doing: The Origin of Zero 5
Ch. 2 Nothing Comes of Nothing: The West Rejects Zero 25
Ch. 3 Nothing Ventured: Zero Goes East 63
Ch. 4 The Infinite God of Nothing: The Theology of Zero 83
Ch. 5 Infinite Zeros and Infidel Mathematicians: Zero and the Scientific Revolution 105
Ch. 6 Infinity's Twin: The Infinite Nature of Zero 131
Ch. 7 Absolute Zeros: The Physics of Zero 157
Ch. 8 Zero Hour at Ground Zero: Zero at the Edge of Space and Time 191
Ch. [infinity] Zero's Final Victory: End Time 211
App. A Animal, Vegetable, or Minister? 217
App. B The Golden Ratio 221
App. C The Modern Definition of a Derivative 223
App. D Cantor Enumerates the Rational Numbers 225
App. E Make Your Own Wormhole Time Machine 229
Selected Bibliography 231
Acknowledgments 239
Index 241
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 55 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(27)

4 Star

(15)

3 Star

(7)

2 Star

(4)

1 Star

(2)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 55 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 20, 2011

    Choose another Zero book

    The philosophy and history of the concept of "nothing" is an interesting one with a lot of repercussions. I can't really say that Seife did it justice, though. The writing is not as focused as it could be, some sections getting repetitive and his analogies don't quite work. And, quite frankly, I don't know why anyone would spend time describing Pascal's Wager without pointing out how logically inconsistent and culturally biased it is. In short, not a bad book, just not really recommended. Especially since others have tackled the subject.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 14, 2010

    Fantastic

    Fantastic book, though most definitely written by a mathematician. Very interesting and concise. Now to find a good biography of Pythagoras..

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 25, 2005

    Fascinating

    Zero was a fascinating journey. I read it in two sittings. I'm a high school senior in a college-level intro calculus course though, and I wonder how the less-initiated reader finds Zero. I would caution those who lack a patience for higher order mathematics, or a familiarity with physics and calculus to think twice before delving into Zero. You will undoubtedly enjoy it, but I wonder if you will understand the intricacies of the latter half of the book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2005

    Not For Nothing...

    Who would have thought that a book about zero would be so interesting? But it is - and then some. Easily readable, even for mathophobes - and lots of fun.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2014

    Fantasic book

    We read this book in trig class through the year. Was fun to find out the history of such a simple yet complex idea. I highly recomend this book if you love learning.

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  • Posted June 2, 2011

    Great book, not just for math-lovers

    Fans of science, history, math, or philosophy will dig this. Hell, even if you hate any of those subjects, read this book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2006

    A Must Read For Anyone Needing Perspective

    It's been a while since I've partaken in any mathematics or physics discussions but this book helped me understand what I didn't even realize I didn't understand. Reading this book enlightened my understanding of physics and calculus. I definitely recommend this book to anyone. The author ensures that it's easy enough to read for just about anyone with a slightly above average mathematical reasoning level. Although I must agree with a previous reviewer and state that the latter half of the book is much more conceptual.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2005

    wonder how much info is right ?

    Wish the author had done proper research coz it is definetely a dangerous idea when he writes that the number Zero was invented by the Babylonians. If he had done a proper research as most mathematicians could have told him that the concept of Zero was invented by Aryabhatt an indian mathematician who devised the number system. He used the word 'kha' for position and it would be used later as the name for zero. There is evidence that a dot had been used in earlier Indian manuscripts to denote an empty place in positional notation. Well, I definitely am thinking twice about the authenticity of the rest of the book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2004

    From a math-a-phobic!

    Who would think that a dry subject on 'zero' could be so interesting? A wonderful, interesting journey through history on how zero came into our everyday mathematics. Recommend to everyone, even mathaphobics.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2004

    zero flaws....i think?

    This astounding display of excellence is, for lack of a better term, marvelous. Seife dives deep into the biography of a common yet engrossly powerful number. Upon reading, one can see that even an art so precise as mathamatics, it wobbles on an unsteady leg that might not even exist at all. A truly ingenious book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 18, 2003

    Truly impressive view at a number.

    This was a great book. It starts out with basic concepts and history and develops it into a knowledge rich book. Not only does it have something to show the reader but it leaves the reader with a lasting impression about the deveopment, growth, and life of zero.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 29, 2002

    Wonderful Book

    Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea is a classic. I recommend anyone seeking to understand the history of mathematics in a brief but enjoyable way, should read this book. This book is very short, only having ten chapters that detail the history of mathematics and how zero and infinity have destroyed the logic of science. From chapter zero to infinity this book is a must read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2002

    Uneven and unfocused

    This book had a lot of potential, but falls woefully short. When the author stays within his own field of mathematics, the book is refreshingly informative. His sections, on the limit, integral calculus, L' Hopital's rule, etc. are worth taking a look at, certainly a good review for those of us who may've taken a course or two in calculus a while back but can hardly recognise Leibniz' differential today. But the book is very disappointing whenever it veers outside of mathematical teaching. The author should have simply left out the book's last 1/3, as the chapters on astronomy, cosmology, physics, and in general matters application-related, are poorly written and packed with distracting errors. And his discussion of history starts off interesting but then dissolves in an overflow of bloated writing and convoluted presntations. His sections on the ancient cultures seemed trite and off the mark, and he veers off on too many unrelated tangents as the book moves along.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 12, 2002

    Worth a skimming, if even that

    This book is utterly a labour to read. It is informative in some parts where it details the history of mathematics, but overall is so full of confusing and distended prose that it does not justify the effort put in. And the latter half of the book, with cosmological thought and physical theory, is awful. Worth perhaps skimming the sections on the curve-tangent problem and the history of the number from the middle ages onward, otherwise does not merit the effort.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2001

    A gem

    A truly enjoyable book. It's amazing how elegant the book is despite how dense it is with philosophical, historical, and mathematical facts. Highly recommended.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 22, 2001

    Atrocious

    Seife's book is overwrought, heavy on style and woefully weak (even inaccurate) on substance. His writing style is hyperbolic and filled with inane puns about the number zero (as can be seen in the chapter names). He goes way overboard in estimating the Greeks' attitude toward the number zero; as quite a bit of scholarship has shown, the number was not some kind of bete noire to the Greeks, rather, they simply found no need to incorporate it as a placeholder because of their geometric mathematical focus and the counting systems they used in commerce. Seife gets confused about the history of Aristotelianism in Europe-- he states that it basically kept Europe in the Dark Ages, while the Arab civilization (which imparted the numeric system containing zero to Europe in the late Middle Ages) rejected Aristotelian thought. In fact, as any middle school history student could point out, Europe was in the Dark Ages in large part because it almost totally forgot Aristotle's work. Though clearly many of Aristotle's ideas would turn out to be incorrect, his observational and scientific approach to things was crucial to eventually beginning the Age of Reason. In fact, one of the Arabs' greatest contributions to the history of thought was that they *translated* Aristotle into Arabic and studied it thoroughly, then transmitted this new learning and way of thought into Europe in about the 1200s. Seife mixes this up entirely. His descriptions of Newtonian and Leibnizian calculus are not bad, but when he gets into the cosmology and the physics he's way out of his league. One of the most fascinating things about 20th century science is the way in which Einstein's work and quantum physics have both totally revised the notion of the vacuum, filling it with activity of many stripes-- but Seife glosses this over in a few poorly written pages, and misses the whole point of what modern work has shown about the field. This is not the book to read about this topic.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2001

    Enchanting Storytelling, Compelling Concepts

    Seifes style has cool class, as he presents captivatingly the origins, behaviors, and the dangers of integrating the concept of zero into mathematics, philosophy and existential concepts within our own historical universe. Who knew math was so compelling, but once you start this book, its sure to hijack you along trails of intrigue. Touches of irreverent humor and masterful storytelling spice this book chock full of ancient cultural information, explanations of different counting notations, calendars, and philosophy. An exhilarating view of the many implications and paradoxes inherent in the controversial idea of zero. Seife, using captivating uniqueness of authorial voice, weaves stories, concepts and humorous anecdotes into a fascinating journey that travels a wonderful path watching tableaus of many ancient cultures beliefs and stakes in the zero controversies. Seifes' presentation enmeshes concepts of mathematical behaviors of zero in culture, philosophy and political stakes with a gooseflesh chill of fun along the journey. Covering ground from Egypt to Sumeria to Greece, keeping the freshness of drama and meaning present in every paragraph, this book is a work of wonder and amazement, entertaining and compelling. A meaningful bonus, the practical illustrations of the mathematical challenges posed by zero are refreshingly accessible even to math-phobics. ....I highly recommend the audio version of this book, as well, to fully enjoy Seife's storytelling.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2001

    Recommended reading!

    A truly excellent and entertaining account of the history of this invaluable concept!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2001

    A great book with a fresh persepective

    When I first saw this book in my book club I was instantly curious. When I got the book a few weeks later in the mail I immediately opened the book and 3 days later I had completely finished the book. I was overwhelmed by the long struggle zero had to gain acceptance. Who would have figured that zero was just naturally accepted like all the other numbers were. The author describes the most complicated mathmatical issues in the easiest way possible. This book made me think like most books never will. It is the journey of human beings intelectual progress. It is stunning and I belive ever college kid should be forced to read this.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2000

    Zero is less than Zero

    Zero was just that. Probably one of the worst books I have ever read, taking the reader on a confusing, sleepy and boring ride through the beginging of time and every step in Seife's own lame, irrelevant and unfocused timeline of an interesting idea. Very disappointing.

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