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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 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 universeૼand one of the greatest paradoxes of human thought.


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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 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 universeૼand one of the greatest paradoxes of human thought.

30 review for Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

  1. 4 out of 5

    Trevor

    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 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 nearly as interesting as Euclid's Window The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace – A book I mentally compared this to throughout) but then, bizarrely, he went into a fairly detailed description of the Doppler effect, for instance. This book would have benefited from being edited by someone who knew virtually nothing about science. And they could have written on the sides of the page either ‘oh, I see’ or ‘WTF?’ There are many interesting little bits to all this that made it worthwhile, though – the stuff on Pythagoras was interesting – I didn’t know he didn’t eat beans because they make people fart and because they look like little genitals (I’ve never really looked closely enough at beans to notice this resemblance, to be honest, but it does sound as good a reason for a food aversion as any other, I guess). I also didn’t know he was killed because he refused to cross a field of beans (makes my rantings about only going into McDonalds to use their toilets – I only make deposits, no withdrawals - sound perfectly enlightened, if you ask me). There were also interesting bits about vanishing points being zeros and therefore the relationship between space and zero being something non-trivial – but all of that stuff is handled much more interestingly in The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace A History of Space from Dante to the Internet (even if I still have problems with the last bits of that book). Look, it wasn’t a bad book – but I felt it struggled due to feeling it had to make zero the core concept of all of science. This is a trend in this sort of book – you know, pick something (nutmeg or coffee or space) and show it as the nexus through which all strands of the universe can be understood. Generally, this is handled better than it has been handled here though. PS - I hadn't realised this is the same guy who wrote Decoding the Universe How the New Science of Information Is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, from Our Brains to Black Holes - suddenly, things make much more sense.

  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. 5 out of 5

    Tania

    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 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 drastically math and science changed over the centuries.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Kathrynn

    Wow! A tremendous amount of information is packed between the cover pages of this little hummer. I had no idea zero created such controversy--in religion and math/science. Who knew! 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 Wow! A tremendous amount of information is packed between the cover pages of this little hummer. I had no idea zero created such controversy--in religion and math/science. Who knew! 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 that. Interesting, because we do consider some things as zero, i.e., babies are not born and then automatically considered to be 1 year old. They are 1 month, 24 months, etc, then they are 1. Makes sense. I enjoyed how the author used examples that I could relate to when explaining thermodynamics, quantum physics, time-travel, black holes (wormholes), etc. Enjoyed the e (calculus), too. A lot of history of our number system is enclosed in this book. Where the word Algebra came from. Who knew! A lot of names, theories, dates and some interesting stories to help bring the time period(s) to life. Appendix E: How to Make Your Own Wormhole (time machine) was humorous. The last chapters dove into physics, time-travel, black holes, our galaxy, how the star distances were measured, how the universe came to be (big bang theory) and how it may end, how we can travel vast distances on little fuel. It was very complicated, but I now understand why we haven't been able to do it yet. The universe is still expanding. The other galaxies are speeding further away from us. There are still large hunks of nothing in space. The author goes into what is going on with our sun. Einstein and his theories are throughout the book. Interestingly, all this ties right into zero. A black hole is zero. Vast nothingness. How zero and God correlate.... Who knew!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jeb

    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 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 sort of resented the reintroduction to the Rule of L'Hopital. But overall I found this to be an enjoyable read. My favorite parts were the discoveries of the old Greek musicians and the artists who moonlighted as math dudes. The first section of the book reminded me of that one Donald Duck cartoon [(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_i...)]. In my opinion, the ideal audience for this book is kids who are just about to take calculus, because Zero makes the math is both applicable and fun. But also an interesting read for adults. Just be warned that part of this book involves a journey back to high school math equations.

  6. 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.

  7. 4 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.

  8. 5 out of 5

    David

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

  9. 4 out of 5

    drea

    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, 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, even explains how through the power of the dangerous zero, you can make an equation that proves Winston Churchill is a carrot. I would have truly liked to understand that! However, nowhere in this book does Donald Duck leap out of the pages and explain the The Golden Ratio to you a la Mathmagic Land, and that proved to be the downfall of this book and me. Not gonna lie--when I got to the section about calculus, I was overcome by the the old feeling of having a test the next day and not knowing what a differential equation was, and maybe Mr. Taylor would make it a group test and I could force my ex-boyfriend to be my partner and not have to know? God, that's going be a hard email to write. STRESS. STRESS. Where was I? Oh yes. All that said, the early chapters did come with some interesting history sprinkled around all of the equations. I never really noticed the links of old-school Judeo-Christian thought to Aristotle and his rejection of the infinite or the void. I also never realized that the Catholic Church was actually embracing new thinkers until Martin Luther decided to upset the apple cart and they went scrambling back to their traditions and finger-pointing at heretics. These sections were a little textbookish and occasionally hyperbolic ("Zero is dangerous! Zero will ROCK YOUR WORLD. Zero may kill your children!") but I think the info will stick with me. But, in the end, if a=level of book enjoyment, and b=feelings of stupidity, and c=interesting tidbits, then A = c-b will probably give you a negative number . . . which I know we only have thanks to Eastern thought! Also, Winston Churchill is a carrot.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Tim

    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. 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. Yet the need to confront these limits and by increments bring them within the space of the humanly possible is the impulse behind this book. Short as it is, the first two thirds of the work provide an engaging survey of the development and application of 'zero' in mathematics. A substantial part of its current conception is bound up in the development of the calculus which underlies so much of mathematical physics. Relativity theory and the development of thermodynamics spurred further application of the concept in theories of nature. Nonetheless, singularities represent limits to what we know and perhaps can know, as well as what we can do. Zero's enigmatic presence in our thoughts is a gateway to the speculative, sometimes nearly mystical suppositions in a scientific vein that take up the final third of the work. Zero, in Seife's account, is a main character in a story about mathematics and physical science. But his account of the concept as an artifact of culture and of language may offer some additional insight. For example, in common English usage, zero is nothing apart from comparison. The activity of comparing and by extension of measuring is part of this odd number which happens to be even.

  11. 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.

  12. 5 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.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Ben 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!

  14. 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 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.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kaion

    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 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 to Seife's credit that he manages to weave out of these eclectic approaches a coherent story that borders at times upon the epic... while never being too important not to include an irreverent tangent about Pythagoras's acute dislike of beans. If anything, Seife trends too sprightly at times. Though I admire his stance in neither dumbing down the material nor making it intimidating for the casual reader, at some point, no matter how breezily one explains black holes or the Casimir effect- there's no disguising that there are some vast concepts being covered. As it is, I believe you definitely have to at least of heard of some of these ideas (particularly in the last third) to enjoy the new contexts he weaves for them in his narrative. Myself, I sort of managed alright with some first year Calculus and Physics schooling. I can't say I ever turned down the chance for more trivia, and Zero delivered in spades. Also, know this: the first appendix details a mathematical proof on why Winston Churchill is a carrot. Rating: 4 stars

  16. 5 out of 5

    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 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 Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, the author says that he believes students learning about science should also learn about the people behind the discoveries of science and how they made their discoveries. I wholeheartedly agree. For one thing, I've found that learning the reasons why people wanted answers to scientific questions has made the science much more interesting. The stories behind the science are also often quite dramatic or even tragic and therefore memorable. These stories give the scientific data a context that makes it easier to remember. And this isn't really too surprising, is it? After all, we've been storytellers for nearly as long as we've been walking upright. We make sense of the world through storytelling, so storytelling seems like an easy way to help make sense of science.

  17. 4 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 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.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Michele

    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!

  19. 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.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Alexandra

    This just makes me want to read all of the science and math books

  21. 4 out of 5

    huydx

    Very cool book, it covers many interesting facts.

  22. 5 out of 5

    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 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, pi, e, harmonic sequences, etc. So, when the concept of zero and infinity appeared, it didn't make any sense to them because God or gods are something, which mean nothing is nothing nor infinite; therefore they, the theologians, discouraged the usage of the concepts of zero and infinity, preventing them from reaching other scholars. To many generations of mathematicians since the ancient Greece, they had been struggled to solve Zeno's paradoxes, which involve the concept of infinity, for many century until they realized that they could avoid the problem of infinity because there wasn't just one kind of infinity, but many: some divergence and some convergence. However, zero appeared once again in limit as zero decided by zero. Rather than ignoring the problem, they embraced zero and infinity as we learn in calculus, especially integration: the method of adding infinite zeroes to reach a finite number. To physicists, astrophysicists and cosmologists, concept of zero and/or infinity appeared in thermodynamics, ultraviolet catastrophe, black hole, expending universe and the Big Bang. However, their fates are not like that of mathematicians. Physicists won't be able to reach absolute zero no matter how modern their technology will become: astrophysicists still have no clue what is happening inside black hole's singularity where enormous mass is embedded in an unimaginably small point in space, cosmologists [and theoretical physicists] still haven't found the theory of everything, whose goal is to combine Einstein's general theory of relativity with quantum mechanics. Without such theory, we would not be able to understand what happened at the instant of the Big Bang, the origin of our Universe and in the singularity of black hole. I find this book surprisingly fascinating as I ventured into it expecting less than what it would give me. "Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea," is not only recommended to those who like maths, but also those who don't since one does not need to like math in order to enjoy reading it because the book provides you much more than just boring math equations that you always avoided in school. More book reviews at: https://menglongstarstuff.wordpress.com :')

  23. 5 out of 5

    Riley Reinhard

    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 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 meaning for calculus comes from the Greek word for "pebble," and this book explains why. Everything about this book was extremely deep, philosophical, and at times very hard to understand. This is why the diagrams and situational story problems are helpful. The book catches the reader off guard from the start with a very capturing introduction about the USS Yorktown's defeat and leaves the reader with butterflies in their stomach, aching to find out more about zero's powers. In addition to learning of these mathematical concepts, Zero also incorporates a great deal of historical stories and characteristics associated with ancient areas and different people of the world. This book requires avid (not passive) reading, meaning the reader should probably keep a spare pencil and paper on hand or take notes directly into the book in order to not fall behind or forget concepts. This book is extremely well-written, it provides information in chronological order, and it never gets boring.

  24. 4 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.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Eric Rasmussen

    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 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 and infinity affected science and religion of the time. Just when I was hoping for some math, the book switches to a by-discipline survery of, again, math and phyiscs all-star fun factoids, including Fibonacci sequences, the golden ratio, set theory, numbers larger than infinity, wormholes, etc., etc. There were some ideas in there I had not read about before, like projective geometry, but for the most part, Hawking, Bryson, and popular math authors have covered this. So, for me, it was rehash. If you have not read much pop-math, this book is very interesting, although it definitely requires a late-high school understanding of algebra and physics to make sense. If you are familiar with the genre, you've seen most of it before.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Cara

    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 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 straightforward.

  27. 5 out of 5

    TJ

    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 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 like a really good one-hour History Channel program.)

  28. 5 out of 5

    Bob Nichols

    This book has a great title. It’s one word, loaded with the essence of the cosmos. That essence lies within gravity, the force that governs the large agglomerations of matter and energy. Gravity pulls energy and matter into itself, to a point, a singularity, seen in black holes and in the pre-Big Bang moment. The logic of gravitational force takes this collapse of everything into one point where, mathematically, the increased density continues into infinity. The sole break to this “bottomless” This book has a great title. It’s one word, loaded with the essence of the cosmos. That essence lies within gravity, the force that governs the large agglomerations of matter and energy. Gravity pulls energy and matter into itself, to a point, a singularity, seen in black holes and in the pre-Big Bang moment. The logic of gravitational force takes this collapse of everything into one point where, mathematically, the increased density continues into infinity. The sole break to this “bottomless” conclusion is through the mathematical addition of zero. Zero is nothing (i.e., nothing that can be further subdivided). (1) Zero works at the smallest of the small as well. This is the quantum world where particles and sub-particles break down into formless energy, which is a “singularity” of a different sort. (2) The “many” particles and sub-particles lose identity and morph into some yet-to-be-identified “oneness,”collapsing to a point, which is a “zero” point, beyond which there is or can be nothing more. (3) Then Seife unites gravity and the quantum world. Energy collapses further and further, to the point of a singularity, which is where matter itself collapses into oneness (a formless One). Singularities are mathematical realities that continue forever unless a zero point is added to stop the infinite regress. And zero means that the cosmos, at the macro and micro levels, is ultimately, nothing. (4) This is all mind-blowing stuff. Seife anchors all of this in the philosophical thinking of the East and West (5). The latter did not have the concept of zero for philosophical reasons and struggled scientifically with its absence. It was only after zero was imported from the East that Western science could incorporate its significance into cosmological discussions. I struggled to follow his various lines of thought in this regard. On the whole, though, the book is a philosophical inspiration. As Seife has it, zero-nothing unites philosophy and physics. Cosmic energy is a fixed amount (the conservation of energy, which is also an eternal notion). But that amount changes form and moves perpetually from high to low and from low to high, seeking its equilibrium – a point which is, and can only be, temporary, because energy changes forms and creates differences that in turn creates disequilibrium anew. It’s the Tao. It’s yang and yin. And it’s the three scenarios about the ultimate fate of the cosmos. (1) Zero also works at the opposite end of gravitational force as well. Zero is about a balance of energy. If the energy from the big bang expends itself, gravity pulls cosmic energy back into itself, the zero point (Big Crunch). If energy escapes the zero point, the cosmos expands and continues to the point of heat death, which is another zero point because there’s no energy differential (high to low energy). If cosmic expansion is stopped by gravity, stasis (equilibrium state) is zero as well. (2) Seife doesn’t use this word here but it seems to apply. (3) “A zero in quantum mechanics means that the entire universe – including the vacuum – is filled with an infinite amount of energy: the zero-point energy. This, in turn, leads to the most bizarre zero in the universe: the phantom force of nothing.” (4) Seife quotes Feynman who writes “The problem is, when we try to calculate all the way down to zero distance, the equation blows up in our face and gives us meaningless answers – things like infinity.” String theory is a way out of this dilemma because it sees, Seife writes, “every particle as a vibrating string rather than as a dot…In string theory, zero has been banished from the universe; there is no such thing as zero distance or zero time. This solves all the infinity problems of quantum mechanics.” (5) In the East, “The goal of the Hindu,” Seife writes, “is to free the Atman entirely from the cycle of rebirth, to stop wandering from death to death. The way to achieve the ultimate liberation through lifelessness is to cease paying heed to the illusion of reality. ‘The body, the house of the spirit, is under the power of pleasure and pain,’ explains a god. ‘And if a man is ruled by his body then this man can never be free.’ But once you are able to separate yourself from the whims of the flesh and embrace the silence and nothingness of your soul, you will be liberated. Your Atman will fly from the web of human desire and join the collective consciousness – the infinite soul that suffuses the universe at once everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It is infinity, and it is nothing. So India, as a society that actively explored the void and the infinite, accepted zero.” In the West, the Greeks “didn’t have the concept of a limit because they didn’t believe in zero.” An infinite series “seemed to get smaller and smaller without any particular end in sight. As a result, the Greeks couldn’t handle the infinite. They pondered the concept of the void but rejected zero as a number, and they toyed with the concept of the infinite but refused to allow infinity – numbers that are infinitely small and infinitely large – anywhere near the realm of numbers.” This resistance was tied up with a religious worldview. The infinite regressed into a bottomless void, without a beginning. That notion conflicted with God as the beginning point of creation and movement in the world. Zero allowed the void, nothing, to exist. That removed God and it was, therefore, atheistic.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Dylan

    A well written and down to earth history of the concept of zero and the increasing complicated ways zero and infinity explain the physical laws of our universe. Rereading this after having taken calculus in college helps me better understand both this book and calculus.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth Warwick

    Absolutely fantastic! If you are a math nerd like me, you will LOVE this book. The history of concepts is so fascinating. Enjoy!!!

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