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.