Friday, April 10, 2009

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

by Charles Seife

It's history! And science! It's the story of the number zero! Did you know that the number zero wasn't always around? That's why the Gregorian Calendar is so bad! For that matter, did you notice that you never had to use it in Geometry class? Neither did the Egyptians nor the Greeks, because plots of land are never nothing! And did you know that Greek cults would kill you for discussing irrational numbers in public? Or that Arabic numerals are actually Hindi? Or that the Babylonians had a sexagesimal number system? (That means base-60!) If you're not bored yet, maybe this book is for you.

I found everything about the history of zero fascinating up to the invention of Calculus, but then this book got a little tedious. Once zero had shouldered its way into the dominant paradigm, all the conflict and sexiness was gone. Seife did not need to spend some 60 pages talking about blackholes and string theory and the big bang and how zero is integral to all these ideas. There are better books on holes and strings and bangs to be read, if you ask me. However, Appendix E: Make Your Own Wormhole Time Machine is pure gold, the kind of stuff your light-hearted high school science teacher dreams of.

There is a lot of good stuff in here about how math and science can influence culture and vice versa, and it makes for a good story. In many ways the history of zero is the history of math, and glimpsing the zero-less world does make you realize how much we really take for granted. Math used to be so clunky! (Case in point: Roman numerals).

I want to summarize the book, but doing so would probably qualify as the geekiest plot spoiler ever. I'll leave it to you to discover yourself.

My biggest criticism of this book would be its occasional sensationalism. Seife makes broad cultural claims sometimes to dramatize the idea that zero stood in stark opposition to dominant social institutions. Some of this conflict rings true enough, and indeed the Aristotilean paradigm did hold back the acceptance of zero, but Seife very often paints the picture that Kings and Churches were shaking their fists directly at the concept of zero, when the reality was probably different.

The void and the infinite were certainly controversial subjects for a time, theologically and philosophically speaking, and the introduction of Algebra, (and therefore, the number zero), to Western Civilization had a huge cultural impact, but Seife manufactures his own conflict by pretending that the two things are one and the same. He leans too heavily on the relationship between zero the number and the philosophical idea of nothingness and often implies that one was the harbinger of the other.

It makes for a more entertaining read I suppose, which is important when trying to make your dorky math book more accessible to the public, but this discerning reader sniffs the taint of a lie.