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.
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
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.
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
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 (booknews.com)
Mathematicians, contrary to popular misconception, are often the most lucid of writers (Bertrand Russell won a Nobel Prize not in mathematics but in literature), and Seife is a welcome example. He writes with an understated charm that takes account of human fear, the mistakes of geniuses and the mind’s grandest ambitions.”
—Atlanta Journal Constitution
“Zero emerges as a daunting intellectual riddle in this fascinating chronicle. With remarkable economy, Seife urges his readers to peer through the zero down into the abyss of absolute emptiness and out into the infinite expanse of space. . . . Deftly and surely, Seife recounts the historical debates, then swiftly rolls the zero right up to the present day, where he plunges through its perilous opening down into the voracious maw of a black hole, and then out into the deep freeze of an ever cooling cosmos. A must read for every armchair physicist.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“His narrative . . . shifts smoothly from history and philosophy to science and technology, and his prose displays a gift for making complex ideas clear.”
—The Dallas Morning News
“Seife keeps the tone as light as his subject matter is deep. By book’s end, no reader will dispute Seife’s claim that zero is among the most fertile—and therefore most dangerous—ideas that humanity has devised. . . . Seife’s prose provides readers who struggled through math and science courses a clear window for seeing both the powerful techniques of calculus and the conundrums of modern physics. . . . In doing so . . . this entertaining and enlightening book reveals one of the roots of humanity’s deepest uncertainties and greatest insights.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Even innumerates . . . can appreciate the intricate web of conceptual connections Seife illuminates.”
“The greater part of this book tells a fascinating human story with skill and wit . . . we come to appreciate the surprising depth and richness of ‘simple’ concepts such as zero and infinity—and their remarkable links to the religion and culture of earlier civilizations and to present-day science.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Seife . . . recounts his story as an accomplished science journalist, standing on the outside to bring clarity to complex ideas. . . . the crisp explanations are refreshing . . . straightforward and bright.”
—The New York Times
“Seife has a talent for making the most ball-busting of modern theories . . . seem fairly lucid and common sensical.”