qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

Much Ado About Nothing

Book Review: Zero - The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, by Charles Seife
This is a book very much on the lighter side of popular science, which in itself I find interesting as I wouldn't have expected such a book to have particularly wide appeal.

The first few chapters are probably the more interesting part of the book, dealing with the way most ancient civilisations neglected, ignored, or forbade zero. (It partially featured in the Babylonians' astronomical calculations, whence it was carried to India and developed, and the Mayans seemed to have had a symbol for zero; but the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans avoided it. This book omits any mention of ancient Chinese or other far eastern mathematics). It seems to have returned westwards as Arabic scholarship was in the ascendent. Seife chooses to dwell heavily on the philosophical background of zero and "the void", setting Judaic creation myths against Aristotelian beliefs. There are some interesting asides in these chapters, name-dropping in passing Zeno, Pythagoras and Ptolemy; illustrations of various numeral systems; and an intriguing wood-carving of "an algorist versus an abacist". The discussion of zero and the calendar is less interesting, but it can be allowed as a millennial text and as a highlight of the inconsistencies that can arise when counting starts at one.

Into the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the story meets Copernicus, Descartes and Pascal. The chapter on calculus is particularly well-written, and I commend it to anyone who has encountered that subject but who has despaired at the thought of approaching zero divided by zero. Later chapters take the subject of zero into modern physics and cosmology; the Casimir effect was a new concept to me and was interesting and well-described, but the rest of the final chapters discuss material that is probably better covered elsewhere to anyone who has read popular physics and cosmology books.
Tags: books, science
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