Gabriel's Reviews > Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

Zero by Charles Seife
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's review
May 22, 2011

really liked it
Read from May 14 to 22, 2011

This marks the second book I've read about the number zero (the first being The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero). This of course begs the question, why is there not only one book about this number, but two? And are there more out there? And what doe they hope to illuminate that the rest don't?

In the opinion of the author, Charles Seife, the reason why 0 is so important is that it has been at the heart of almost (well, he argues every ...) every paradigm shift that we've seen. It is humanity's aversion to "nothingness/void" that scared (and scares) folks from zero but the simplicity of it that keeps us coming back. Somehow, 0 keeps coming up and we always need to use it. Scientists and Mathematicians and Philosophers and even the Pope tried/try to deny it, but it doesn't stay away for long ...

All this makes for fascinating reading. This book is very simply written and goes through many analogies to explain the difficult mathematics and scientific topics that it deems significant (most of which will be understandable to anyone with at least high school mathematics - up through Algebra/Geometry though Algebra 2 helps). To revisit all the different aspects of mathematics (first 6/7 chapters) is great and Charles Seife does an excellent job of clarifying 0's role in the advancement of mathematics. Also, I'm a huge proponent of getting the history of mathematics out there and this book does a great job of selecting interesting stories that explain the madness that created the math we take for granted today.

The science it describes is still new; apparently dealing with 0 (or at least what the author would describe the interesting aspects of 0 - multiplication and division) is something that science avoided until it couldn't anymore. And even now scientists are looking for ways to avoid 0 and infinity - at least that is how Seife explains String Theory.

Here's the issue.

At its core, this book is about how humanity must accept 0, that the truth of the universe is within our grasp when we use and look at 0. It helped reshape the solar system ideas and art and brought along such concepts as infinity (and countable infinities) and more. Every time that it has been banished, no good has come from the banishment and it would reassert itself. YET String Theory "banishes" 0 and infinity away and somehow works. Charles Seife is wise enough to treat the theory with a grain of salt - it still can't be observed so it can't go through the scientific rigors of being proven - but it is still presented as a culmination of knowledge. 0's power to banish the "proof of God" (through the Aristotelian theories of harmonic spheres) is almost deemed a step forward in mankind. Sure, Seife then goes on to show Pascal's "best bet" idea (mainly that the odds are in your favor if you are a Christian when you die), but it still doesn't erase the subtext that a religious viewpoint is ignorant. Somewhere, though, these two ideas clash. If the banishment of 0 in one place is deemed a step forward and the banishment of 0 in another is a step back ... where are we?

The other piece about this book that I found hard to swallow is the core thesis. 0 is the heart of every paradigm shift? I agree that the mathematical implications of 0 were key to many developments and that the philosophical implications of those mathematics also were strong opponents to the addition of 0 in the numbers allowed ... but math is not the center of the world's viewpoints and neither is science. They are tools that are used to explain the world, but not used by everyone. In fact, going to any of the time periods discussed in this book and asking a random person on the street about the mathematics being described would probably give you quotes akin to what you get today, "I just don't get math." The view of the people doesn't just change when a mathematician adds a number to the number line. There is much more at play.

Yes, this book is good and reading about the philosophical impact of 0 is cool. Reading the history of mathematics and a brief description of recent science discoveries is cool too. Having it written is so fluid a language is also key to creating an enjoyable time. However, I think Charles Seife is putting a little too much emphasis on nothing (sorry, couldn't help myself).

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