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

Zero by Charles Seife
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Jan 24, 10

bookshelves: 2010-read, history, mathematics, non-fiction, own, science, philosophy
Read on January 23, 2010 — I own a copy, read count: 2

My grade 11 math teacher gave this to me, and I remember reading it and loving it. Here I am, three years later, returning to Zero for a second read. No longer the gullible high school student (now a gullible university student!), I'm apt to be more critical of Zero. Nevertheless, it stands up to a second reading and both inspires and informs.

Imagining a world without zero is probably difficult for most people. It was especially difficult for me, as a mathematician who grew up learning calculus and understanding that zero is just another number. Even with Charles Seife leading the way in the first chapter, I still have trouble comprehending this idea that entire civilizations rose and fell—and achieved great things in between—without the concept of a mathematical zero.

In that respect, Zero acts as a history of the development of an idea, one that began in Babylonia and spread, via Alexander the Great, to India, where it flourished. Seife's history is necessarily balanced between East and West in this case, as it's impossible to discuss mathematics without discussing India. That being said, I would have liked to learn about how China regarded zero, even if Chinese mathematicians contributed no new developments to the number's importance as their absence from this book seems to imply. This one oversight overlooked, Zero is not your typical history book that starts in ancient Egypt or Greece and insists everything we know flows from there.

What's admirable about Zero is Seife's ability to focus on zero. The story intersects with the lives of many famous mathematicians, but the obvious slimness of this book testifies that Seife managed to distill only what was necessary about their lives in his quest to explain the mystery of zero. I'm not trying to imply, "Short books are easier for non-mathematical people to understand," but that's part of the attraction. Although it's heavier on the equations than I remembered, I would still feel comfortable recommending Zero to my non-mathematically-inclined friends. Firstly, Seife's writing is accessible, even when loaded with equations. As long as you have some basic arithmetic left over from high school, you can follow along. And I'd definitely recommend this book to high school students, like I was when I first read it: it's one of those books that opens the mind. Secondly, the narrow focus acts like a window into the history of mathematics. I have A History of Mathematics sitting next to Zero on my desk, and while the former is more complete, I somehow suspect the latter is more appropriate for a general audience. In other words, Zero is a good gateway drug.

Where Zero starts to show its seams is in Seife's rhetorical ability, which stretches itself thin even over so thin a volume. He's too dramatic for my taste, especially as he recounted the attitudes and fate of the Pythagoreans. And he's always eager to remind us of how "powerful" zero is. While I agree that zero is a pretty cool number, the constant refrain felt somewhat forced after a while, pulling me out of the book instead of keeping me comfortably ensconced in this little tutorial. Seife devotes only cursory glances at the philosophical arguments offered for or against the acceptance of zero; he tells us about Aristotle's rejection of zero but goes into little detail. While I'm sure he wanted to avoid turning the book into a text on Aristotelian philosophy, I feel like there are gaps here that, if not filled, could have been covered with a more attractive carpet.

Not perfect, not as mind-blowing as some mathematical literature I've read, Zero makes it mark because it's adequate at explanation without going overboard. I'm not sure what else to say: if you're interested in the subject, this is a good place to start. And even if you're not, hey, it's only 250 pages. What have you got to lose? Nothing. Zero!
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