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Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

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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 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


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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 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 apotheosis as the mystery of the black hole. Today, zero lies at the heart of one of the biggest scientific controversies of all time, the quest for the theory of everything. Elegant, witty, and enlightening, Zero is a compelling look at the strangest number in the universe and one of the greatest paradoxes of human thought.

18 review for Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

  1. 4 out of 5

    Bharath

    This book was recommended to me by a friend quite some time back, and I finally got around to reading it now. If you are curious about how zero became mainstream, this is a great book. There are some slow sections especially in the second half though. I listened to the audiobook on Audible and the narration was very good.Zero has had a tough time. Though many times mathematicians seemed to veer towards it, they pulled back as it was considered dangerous territory which mortals should not go towa This book was recommended to me by a friend quite some time back, and I finally got around to reading it now. If you are curious about how zero became mainstream, this is a great book. There are some slow sections especially in the second half though. I listened to the audiobook on Audible and the narration was very good.Zero has had a tough time. Though many times mathematicians seemed to veer towards it, they pulled back as it was considered dangerous territory which mortals should not go towards. The clergy wielded control and for a period grew to be very powerful all across Europe. The problem is that zero symbolized nothingness – a void, and was considered the realm of the divine. Nor was it initially considered necessary for everyday life. Infinity (who the author refers to as Zero’s twin) had much the same problem – nothing & everything are matters to stay away from. Numbers can get smaller & smaller or bigger & bigger but not reach zero or infinity.The East, including India had the advantage that these concepts were intrinsically part of philosophy and hence zero was accepted with no resistance. Zero travelled then to Africa and the Middle East where European mathematicians met it and grudgingly accepted that it is critical for completeness & advancement. The golden ratio too went from India to the rest of the world (credited though to Fibonacci for the series he published, rarely acknowledging its antecedents). There continued to be resistance to zero for a time though and there was a period when mathematicians lost support & respect among the clergy in Europe. The initial discussions which cover the history and acceptance of zero are fascinating. The later sections are devoted to outlining the importance of zero in the sciences, especially physics, significantly on cosmology. Without zero, we wouldn’t have got to many concepts such as relativity, black holes, big bang, end state simulations of the universe etc.An interesting book, but should have been more concise, especially in the later sections.My rating: 3.75 / 5.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Gene

    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. 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. Amazing book.

  3. 4 out of 5

    TK Keanini

    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. 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.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Prakriti Regmi

    The range of the book, BRILLIANT! It opened with the use of numbers, logics for tallying, and closed with mankind’s attempt to better understand the cosmos. And every chapter, reasonably, screamed the power of zero. It's substantiality in solving some ground-breaking scientific theories to the ability to sabotage a whole branch in science! A descriptive and fascinating read. The range of the book, BRILLIANT! It opened with the use of numbers, logics for tallying, and closed with mankind’s attempt to better understand the cosmos. And every chapter, reasonably, screamed the power of zero. It's substantiality in solving some ground-breaking scientific theories to the ability to sabotage a whole branch in science! A descriptive and fascinating read.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jenny

    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 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 Chapter Zero and ending with Chapter Infinity) and the fact that Seife is not biased. He simply conveys historical and scientific fact, not allowing his opinions to leak through his words. I don't like when scientists make it obvious that they're not only proving theories but also trying to disprove God. Seife never does that--he just presents ideas and explains how zero went from being reviled and feared to respected to something that needs to be erased once more. My only critique is that the first part of the book is very easy to understand, but during the second half when Seife discusses modern mathematics and science, the narrative becomes more difficult to follow if the reader isn't a calculus major or a physicist (neither of which I am...). Still, there are nice illustrations that make Seife's points clearer.I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the idea of zero, its origins and usefulness, its place in the world, or to anyone who loves math and science.

  6. 5 out of 5

    David

    This book made me want to actually learn calculus. At least until the brain fever wore off. :)

  7. 5 out of 5

    huydx

    Very cool book, it covers many interesting facts.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Maximilian Wolf

    It is not a book for scientists and engineers only.All people with a curious and open mind should read it and spread their views on the world and universe.I did enjoy it.

  9. 5 out of 5

    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 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!

  10. 4 out of 5

    Tung

    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 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 accompanied the mathematical changes – Aristotelian ethics to Hinduism to the Catholic Church/Copernicus/Galileo debates. The prose does a pretty good job of simplifying major philosophies and major mathematics concepts for the general reader, although about two-thirds of the way through, the history of zero reaches imaginary numbers and proceeds to quantum mechanics, and from then on, the concepts become fairly technical. The biggest problem with the book is that I think Seife doesn’t do an adequate job of convincing me that the number zero is as directly tied to the philosophical struggles of the times as he asserts. He makes the number zero synonymous with “void” and infinity synonymous with “eternity” and therefore mathematical arguments over zero and infinity are the same thing as religious debates over the creation of the universe and eternal destination. It is an extremely large jump that doesn’t come off as convincing. And the last third of the book is more focused on quantum mechanics and cosmology and sort of forgets about the philosophical struggles. An interesting history of the most important number, but not as dangerous an idea as Seife is trying to intimate. Recommended for those who enjoy pop math books.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Philip Mann

    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 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 simplifies it again. Yes, there are pages of equations, some of which I actually understood. But it was a fun read, and he shows how the infinite can be unimaginably large or infinitely small, and how they need each other. The author tells us how this mathematical debate becomes one with the religious debate about the nature of God, and whether He has limits. We see how the ancients Greeks took their debates seriously indeed, and the price of having an unpopular opinion was far worse that getting hateful text messages. Seife tells us about that ancient riddle, about some creature walking one half the distance to a certain point, one jaunt at a time, and in theory can never reach the end, and shows us the single flaw in that argument. Otherwise, we could never get anywhere. As I said, this is a very entertaining book, and the equations shouldn't stop the curious reader.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Megan

    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. 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.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Ensiform

    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. 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.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Sara

    The book added a lot to my knowledge and answered the question of the history of zero, but the author exaggerated and magnified the issue far from zero the original subject.Nevertheless it's enjoyable, easy to read, and satisfying. The book added a lot to my knowledge and answered the question of the history of zero, but the author exaggerated and magnified the issue far from zero the original subject.Nevertheless it's enjoyable, easy to read, and satisfying.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Vicki Cline

    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. 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.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Caitlin Starling

    One of the few books I've reread multiple times (and I'm pondering another reread as I type this). Even if you hated math in school (maybe especially if you hated math in school), this is a DELIGHT. A thought-provoking, mind-bending history of the number zero in western mathematics, with detours into religion, politics, and even alchemy.If, when you finish reading The Death of Jane Lawrence, you want to know more about Zeno's Paradoxes, and just where I was getting all that weird calculus-adjace One of the few books I've reread multiple times (and I'm pondering another reread as I type this). Even if you hated math in school (maybe especially if you hated math in school), this is a DELIGHT. A thought-provoking, mind-bending history of the number zero in western mathematics, with detours into religion, politics, and even alchemy.If, when you finish reading The Death of Jane Lawrence, you want to know more about Zeno's Paradoxes, and just where I was getting all that weird calculus-adjacent stuff from? This is it.It also contains a mathematic proof that Winston Churchill was, in fact, a carrot.

  17. 5 out of 5

    William Schram

    It is an interesting read, but probably not for everyone. I finished it in about four hours, though it does take a while to digest some of the information Seife throws out.Edit: I enjoyed this book before, but the review I gave seems lacking. So here's another shot at it.Zero is essentially an idea. It didn't come from the expert mathematicians in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, or Ancient Rome. Those mathematicians, skilled as they were, had a more practical bent, except for the Greeks, of cours It is an interesting read, but probably not for everyone. I finished it in about four hours, though it does take a while to digest some of the information Seife throws out.Edit: I enjoyed this book before, but the review I gave seems lacking. So here's another shot at it.Zero is essentially an idea. It didn't come from the expert mathematicians in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, or Ancient Rome. Those mathematicians, skilled as they were, had a more practical bent, except for the Greeks, of course. Author Charles Seife explores various mathematical ideas to explain what he means. For example, Seife talks about the Pythagoreans and their "discovery" of irrational numbers. To defend against this idea, they killed the man responsible for leaking the secret.What does this have to do with Zero, though? If you know something of Ancient Greece, you would have heard of Zeno's Paradoxes. They confounded philosophers and mathematicians for centuries because they didn't have the tools necessary to solve them. The Achilles Paradox is probably his most famous. To solve it, all you do is find the limit as a value approaches zero. The Ancient Greeks didn't have a zero, though. They drew diagrams for all their mathematics. How do you draw something with an area of zero? One man was close to figuring it out, Archimedes of Syracuse, but a Roman soldier killed him.The lack of Zero affects our calendar, as well. There is no year zero in the Gregorian Calendar; it jumps from 1 BCE to 1 CE. That fact might not bother you in your everyday life, but it bothers people that have to care about such a fact. Quick, when does the new millennium start? The year 2000 or the year 2001? I was 14 when this argument happened and still remember it faintly.Anyway, according to Seife, Zero and Infinity are intertwined. It lends a mystical quality to the book as a whole. It isn't hard to see this for yourself. All you have to do is find the limit of one divided by a number that approaches zero. The resulting number shoots up to infinity or negative infinity, depending on the side you choose.Although the Babylonians invented Zero as a placeholder, it flourished in India. Alexander the Great took it with him on his journey to conquer Asia. Alexander died, but Zero did not. Indian mathematicians didn't care about irrational numbers or plane figures, but they did play around with numbers.All in all, this book is excellent. It covers a lot of ground in few pages.

  18. 5 out of 5

    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.

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