Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

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by Charles Seife

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A concise and appealing look at the strangest number in the universe and its continuing role as one of the great paradoxes of human thought

The Babylonians invented it, the Greeks banned it, the Hindus worshiped it, and the Church used it to fend off heretics. Now, as Y2K fever rages, it threatens a technological apocalypse. For centuries the power of zero


A concise and appealing look at the strangest number in the universe and its continuing role as one of the great paradoxes of human thought

The Babylonians invented it, the Greeks banned it, the Hindus worshiped it, and the Church used it to fend off heretics. Now, as Y2K fever rages, it threatens a technological apocalypse. 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.

Readers of Fermat's Enigma, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, Seeing and Believing, and Longitudewill find the revealingly illustrated Zero freshly informative, easy to understand, and--infinitely--fascinating.

Charles Seife, a U.S. correspondent for the international magazine New Scientist, has also written for Scientific American, The Economist, Science, Wired UK, The Sciences, and numerous other publications. He holds an M.S. in mathematics from Yale University and his areas of research include probability theory and artificial intelligence.

Editorial Reviews

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.
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 (

Product Details

Publishing Mills, Inc., The
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Unabridged, 4 Cassettes
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4.27(w) x 7.01(h) x 1.15(d)

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.

What People are saying about this

John Horgan
From Author of The End of Science

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.

John Rennie
From John Rennie, Editor in chief of Scientific American

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.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
The universe begins and ends with zero.' So does Seife's book, but his readers, after finishing, will feel they've experienced a considerable something

Meet the Author

Charles Seife is the author of five previous books, including Proofiness and Zero, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for first nonfiction and was a New York Times notable book. He has written for a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times, Wired, New Scientist, Science, Scientific American, and The Economist. He is a professor of journalism at New York University and lives in New York City.


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Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 56 reviews.
Caleigh More than 1 year ago
Fantastic book, though most definitely written by a mathematician. Very interesting and concise. Now to find a good biography of Pythagoras..
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous 6 months ago
Dun dun duuun!! <br> Its still short though... But good!
Anonymous 6 months ago
I bet by now you are thinking why are you not getting annoyed by the government. They tried. They failed. What are the odds? Well, I may or may not have set a missel on fire and completely destroyed it, when I was a baby. How did I find a missel. I flew away. Yeah. I'm a bad kid. So I scared everyone. So many people ignore me. The government is to scared to do anything. My parents and the government were happy because I somehow burnned an enemy missel. <P> As we walked out of school, the jerk named George came over. "Hey Dra-" I punched him hard in the gut before he finished. George yelped then ran. It gets pretty annoying. Moon blushed a bit. I think she likes me. Or, she thinks I like her. Meh, no big deal. We walked down to the park and hung out. "Zero, I think someone in our class likes you!" Katie said. Katie and I are in the same class. If someone bullies her. They also bully me. Katie was my first friend. So I kind of feel like she is my family. "Who?" The rest of us ask. Katie laughs a little, "I think that maybe Mary likes you. You know how she is always staring at you. Wll, today she was daydreaming and looking at your head durning class." We all laugh. Mary is an airhead. Then, I lay down and see something. "Hey guys. Look." I point up. "What is it Zero?" Moon asked. "An eagle." We all look at the eagle. Then the eagle swoops down and gets a squirrel. We all gasp. "Awesome!" Thats Gavin for you. Everything that has to do with pain is cool to him. I just shrug. Katie and Moon went wide eyed. Moon's eyes went as round as the moon she was named after. I was surprised too. I almost threw up my sandwich. At last, we calmed down. Then we said our goodbyes and went home. As I walked, I saw something different...
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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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Victor3000 More than 1 year ago
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.
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