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Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

3.96  ·  Rating details ·  8,451 ratings  ·  710 reviews
The Babylonians invented it, the Greeks banned it, the Hindus worshipped it, and the Church used it to fend off heretics. For centuries, the power of zero savored of the demonic; once harnessed, it became the most important tool in mathematics. Zero follows this number from its birth as an Eastern philosophical concept to its struggle for acceptance in Europe and its apoth ...more
Paperback, 248 pages
Published February 7th 2000 by Penguin
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Michael Curtis Yes. Some reviewers quibble over details and rhetoric, but the book covers a lot of math history, offers good explanations, and helped this non-mathem…moreYes. Some reviewers quibble over details and rhetoric, but the book covers a lot of math history, offers good explanations, and helped this non-mathematician better understand some math concepts.(less)

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Average rating 3.96  · 
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 ·  8,451 ratings  ·  710 reviews


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Trevor
Oct 18, 2009 rated it it was ok
Shelves: science, maths
I’m not sure if this book quite worked out what it wanted to be. Besides getting to say, ‘and that is the power of zero’, over and over again it wasn’t quite sure where it should pitch itself and the guy writing it was never quite certain how much back knowledge he could rely on his audience actually having. This meant subjects were generally treated too cursory so I was left thinking ‘wait a second, what happened there?’. His discussion of Gauss was very complicated and hard to follow (not near ...more
Gene
Apr 12, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: tk, william, dwayne
Shelves: science, good
A book about numbers that had me laughing out loud while I was on vacation. My wife could not understand how a book about math could make me laugh so much...

But any book that shows the horrible mistake that not having a Year 0 (i.e., 1 BC and 1 AD are adjancent) would have on history as well as subtraction mistakes, how infinity is really is zero's tricky friend, and make almost understandable the reason why the amazing equation "e ^ (pi * i) = -1" is true is pretty fantastic.

I laughed, I cried.
...more
Tania
Mar 02, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Zero is quite an undertaking - the author attacks this microhistory with an ambitious goal: to explain how zero came to be, and how it has factored into math and science, and even the dawn of the universe, from the beginning of time. That's a lot to cover. I respect Seife's attempts to make the text more interesting to the layman, but in my opinion the infused excitement is a bit much. Still, there's a ton of information to be found in this book, and it is pretty interesting to see how drastical ...more
Kathrynn
Mar 08, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Everyone
Wow! A tremendous amount of information is packed between the cover pages of this little book. I had no idea zero created such controversy--in religion and math/science.

Fascinating facts about how our calendar system is ahead by a year BECAUSE we should have begun with year zero, not one. So, when December 31, 1999 came around, true mathematicians didn't celebrate the millenium until December 31, 2000. The Mayan's had the calendar system figured out. They started with zero, but didn't call it t
...more
Jeb
May 08, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: mathy people
Zero is the story of the number, the time that elapsed before its acceptance, and how the ideas behind it (the void and its opposite, infinity) shook the ideals of religion and science across the globe. The book advances through time chronologically, from the Greek philosophers through Renaissance paintings through Einstein's relativity, ending with speculations on string theory. And yes, all of this is fantasia on the theme of the number zero.

I didn't expect this book to be so math-heavy and so
...more
TK Keanini
Apr 12, 2007 rated it it was amazing
I agree that this was a great book. When I was reading it, I thought what a wonderful experience it would be if the walls between Mathmatics, History, Social Science, and English weren't so high, this type of learning could take place in a middle school setting. If I had read this book when i was in middle school, I would have been wagging my tail in math class every day.
Usha
May 26, 2020 rated it really liked it
It's a fascinating and an affirming read. It's difficult to understand any regiment of mathematics and physics without the number zero. Seife reveals, how it's acceptance took time, overcoming of religious and cultural preconceptions and other serious appraisals and tribulations. Without zero, there be no calculus, algebra, astronomy, quantum physics nor understanding of space, beginning and end of the universe, black holes, vacuum and the list goes on into infinity.
Jenny
Jun 10, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Another one of the best books that I've read recently. Seife does an excellent job of turning zero into a subject. It is a number, and it is an idea; it is a troublemaker, and it is a problem solver. The biography is very interesting, beginning with history and philosophy and ending with science and the modern age.
I enjoyed the actual writing of the book: clear and easy to follow, slightly humorous at times (in a Stephen Hawking kind of way), and clever. I like the chapter titles (beginning with
...more
David
Feb 01, 2009 rated it really liked it
This book made me want to actually learn calculus. At least until the brain fever wore off. :)

huydx
Sep 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Very cool book, it covers many interesting facts.
drea
Oct 18, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: not-for-me, book-club
Well, well, well, math. So we meet again. I have done a fantastic job avoiding you for the last ten years, but I knew it couldn't last forever. Still, I wasn't expecting you to come for me in the guise of a pick for our book club. Well played, math. Well. Played.

Basically, I think this is probably a fine book and worthy of more than the "It was okay" rating I am giving. It has lots of pictures and illustrations and appendices, and I am assuming that they mean something. One of them, in theory,
...more
Tim
Feb 25, 2009 rated it really liked it
Seife, a science writer, leads us down the rabbit hole we term 'zero'. The mathematical history of the number follows a convoluted path, early on a place-holder in counting systems or a much-feared void forbidden by belief on pain of death. Eventually the path leads to infinity which, like its twin zero, figures the limit of human experience. For Seife this means that nature - described in its native language of mathematics - breaks completely with possible human experience at zero and infinity. ...more
Melissa  Jeanette
One of the most fascinating books I've read. After reading the first two chapters, I knew I wanted to own it, and I will definitely be buying a copy. I never thought I'd say this about any book having to do with science or math, but this is one of those books that I could turn around and re-read immediately after finishing it. In fact, I might wait a couple days before returning it to the library just so I can read at least the first couple chapters again.

As a side note, toward the end of The A
...more
Philip Mann
Aug 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
You have to love a book that has a section giving instructions on how to build your own wormhole-time machine. All you need to do is build a wormhole and attach one end of it to something very heavy and attach the other end to something travelling at 90% of the speed of light. It gets easier from there, although you do have to wait forty six years and haul the thing to another planet.
The author takes a seemingly simple topic, then tells us how incredibly complex it really is, and then simplifie
...more
Michele
Feb 16, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
The science geek in me absolutely loved this book. It was fascinating to see how the idea of zero could have such incredible effects on everything from religion to art to physics. I also thought the author did an excellent job of writing this in a way that is accessible to the non-scientific mind. Definitely glad I picked it up!
Megan
Jul 11, 2011 rated it it was ok
Recommended to Megan by: Mark Manchester
Shelves: science, math
An intriguing topic but not a particularly well-told story. The author clearly believes that zero and infinity are somehow dangerous and mystical, and I guess there's some evidence that mathematical philosophers have felt the same way over time. But for the most part, the general vibe of this book was, "Ooh, zero, how *mysterious*," and I wasn't really into that.
Vicki Cline
Nov 25, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: math
The first chapters about how the idea of zero came into being were quite interesting. A farmer or herdsman doesn't need a number for no carrots or no sheep. The Babylonians created it as a placeholder for their numerical system, as we use it today to distinguish 41 from 401. Contemplating zero leads eventually to its inverse, infinity. Most of the book deals with the uses of zero and infinity in physics, astronomy and other sciences and I didn't find that as interesting.
Kara Babcock
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
...more
Tung
Jan 09, 2008 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
Winner of the PEN/Martha Albrand Award honoring debut nonfiction from American authors, this book traces the history of the number zero from its initial appearances in Babylonian and Mayan mathematics to its widespread acceptance during the Renaissance to its role in advanced sciences. In addition to detailing the history of the number’s usage in the mathematics systems of various cultures, the book attempts to tie the concept of zero to more fundamental philosophical struggles that have accompa ...more
Kaion
Oct 22, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
0
+ ( It's a book about math. And I read it. ) - ( It took me nine months. )
= 0

For three weeks after I finished Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, its central figure looked out ominously at me. In that way, Charles Seife was entirely successful in this piece of pop-nonfiction, weaving together the creation of the "zero", its role in history of mathematical theory, its religious controversies, its philosophical significance and ultimately, its true place at the heart of the universe. It's t
...more
Jimmy Ele
Amazing book, especially when it gets to the topic of the significance of zero in mathematics and physics. The only improvement that would have made it better is if there were more known about the origin of zero, in particular the ancient Mayan and ancient Indian perspective on the number. Of course, we know that the information on the Mayan perspective was most likely burned by the Spaniards and as for the Indian perspective, perhaps it lies in an ancient scroll somewhere.
Ensiform
Feb 17, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, math
A history of zero and its counterpart the infinite, two ideas that have been regarded as dangerous through the ages but which unlock the secrets to calculus and the universe. Most interesting is Pythagoras’ and Aristotle’s vehement rejections of the idea. The Catholic Church's insistence on Aristotelian thought held Western science and mathematics back for centuries.
Claudia
May 19, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
One of the most interesting books I have read. It brings the story of zero, the number and its implications and effects on humankind, some of them unbelievable.
Alexandra
Aug 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017
This just makes me want to read all of the science and math books
Menglong Youk
4.25/5 stars

"Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea" by Charles Seife is more than just a math book; it's a history of zero and infinity, which the author constantly reminds readers of their resemblances from their birth, the controversial, and the indecisiveness of mathematicians, scientists, philosopher and theologians.

To theologians who unquestionably accepted Aristotlean concepts of nature, God or gods created the integers and fractions that appear in our everyday life from the golden ratio
...more
Riley Reinhard
Apr 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book is intended for all calculus and physics lovers who want to dive into the origins of every formula and concept they are familiar with. If one is not familiar with any calculus or physics concepts, they should not read this book. An avid calculus or physics student reading this book is sure to recognize everything from lessons in class, but this book ties it all together with mind-boggling explanations and a little humor on the side. For example, the reader will find that the actual mea ...more
Eric Rasmussen
Feb 18, 2010 rated it liked it
I was in the mood for some math (it had been so long since I read some pop-math literature), and Zero seemed like the perfect tome. Unfortunately, Zero is a little TOO pop-math - it hits on the same "interesting" math and physics tidbits that so many other pop-math and science books do. And while it relates all of its ideas to zero, it's not really about zero.

The first half does talk about the historical context of the concept of zero, but it is mostly about philosophy - how the concepts of zero
...more
Sotiris Makrygiannis
First I start by changing my score criteria and start scoring lower, than higher.
This is a good book on the history of Zero. We had 1000s of years without. Look around there is nothing zero, zero was invented for practical reasons. Greeks and many others hated it but mathematically they had a problem with long numbers. Zero is a dangerous idea, got converted to philosophy and find a way to enter also theology. The biography is rather complete with parts that are difficult mathematics but covers
...more
Cara
Oct 30, 2013 rated it really liked it
I read this at the same time I was reading Amir Aczel's Finding Zero: A Mathematician's Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers, which are similar in subject but really completely different in style. The latter is more of a travelogue/social history of zero (which has its charms), but I think I prefer this one better because it is a little more concrete. The author does at times try to squeeze some philosophical insights out of zero, which I found annoying, but for the most part it's pretty st ...more
TJ
Sep 08, 2007 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: People who can tell the difference between numbers and letters.
Mind-blowing mathematical literature. That is, if you don't mind having your brain fellated formulaically. Okay, stupid joke aside; this book meets minimum prose competency for making the story of zero, and mathematics, interesting and engaging. After finishing the book, I actually spent two hours giving myself basic algebra problems to see if I could still solve them. This is a good book to read on a whim, any intentions for it more serious will result in disappointment. (In other words, it's l ...more
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CHARLES SEIFE is a Professor of Journalism at New York University. Formerly a journalist with Science magazine, has also written for New Scientist, Scientific American, The Economist, Science, Wired UK, The Sciences, and numerous other publications. He is the author of Zero: The Biography Of A Dangerous Idea, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction. He holds an M.S. in mathemat ...more

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