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The Nothing that Is: A Natural History of Zero Paperback – December 7, 2000

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; Later Printing edition (December 7, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195142373
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195142372
  • Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 0.6 x 4.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #134,036 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

The publisher says The Nothing That Is is "in the tradition" of Dava Sobel's bestselling Longitude, presumably because it is both lyrically written and underillustrated. It's more accurate to describe it as in the tradition of something old enough to have a tradition: the cabinet of curios, a natural history in the old sense.

Robert Kaplan is a mathematics teacher, and he organizes his cabinet around--nothing. How did we come to have a symbol for zero? Who used it first? Usually the invention (or discovery) of zero is given as occurring in India in about the year 600 CE. Kaplan gives much more shrift to Sumerian, Babylonian, and Greek experiments with abacuses, counting boards, positional notation, and abstract thought. He acknowledges that his approach will be controversial:

Haven't all our dots funneled back to India? Were zero and the variable not truly born here, twin offspring of sunya and what seems the singularly Indian understanding of vacancy as receptive? But like an hour-glass, the funnel opens out again and the dots stream down to ancient Greece.

Kaplan's meditations on zero are not confined to its origin. He muses on the "zero of self," on infinitesimals, on the Mayan zero, and on the nothingness of suicide. Throughout, he shows "a sensuous delight in syllables," a love of words as well as numbers, that makes the book a feast for both halves of the brain. --Mary Ellen Curtin --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

We know how useful it is to call nothing a number, but our ancestors didn't: without the idea of zero, complicated arithmetic was hard enough, and algebraAlet alone modern higher mathAunthinkable. Kaplan elucidates expertly the history and uses of the symbol for nothing at all not only in math, and the history of math and science, but also in historical linguistics, medieval metaphysics, accounting, pedagogy and literary interpretation. Among the questions he poses: What psychological and symbolic meanings did zero have for medieval mystics? Sumerians invented positional notation (the convention that lets the 8 in 283 mean 80, not 8); ancient Greeks had to conquer the Babylonians even to learn that. It was in India that the idea arose of treating no-thing as a number just like one-thing or two-things. (Kaplan suggests that the circular symbol arose from the depression left by a counting stone removed from sand.) The zero idea spread through the Arab world to Europe and China. A cast of mathematical thinkers, among them Archimedes, Aryabhata and John von Neumann, join less likely figures in Kaplan's bevy of anecdotes, among the latter Meister Eckhart, Dostoevsky, Sylvia Plath and Wallace Stevens (the source of the book's title). Kaplan's eloquence can blur the line between metaphor and consequence: the "fluidity of position" that zero brought to European arithmetic indeed helped cause Renaissance social "fluidity," but only through a very long chain of effects. More often, Kaplan is entertaining, clear and to the (decimal) point. Who knew there was so much to say about nothing? 40,000 first printing; author tour; foreign rights sold in Italy, the Netherlands, the U.K., Germany, Brazil. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Customer Reviews

I found the book very well written and entertaining.
Arnold V. Loveridge
That being said, if you're looking for a more scientifically oriented and academic book on the topic, try Seife's "Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea."
E. Godfrey
I can't recommend this book to any but those who desperately wants to know something of the history of the concept and writing of zero.
Paul Bernhardt

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

82 of 84 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 19, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Two books discuss the concept of zero. They are "The nothing that Is: A Natural History of Zero" by Robert Kaplan (1999) and "Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea" by Charles Seiff (2000). The books tackle the same subject but are significantly different in their approach.
Both books recognize the difficulties zero caused to the Greeks and their successors. Kaplan emphasizes the mysticism of zero. His book describes the confusion and avoidance of "nothing" throughout civilized history. While there is a smattering of mathematical concepts, the book is mostly an essay revolving about nihilism. This seems somewhat strange as Robert Kaplan has "taught mathematics to people from six to sixty. He is the co-founder of The Math Circle, a program open to the public for the enjoyment of pure mathematics."
Seiff's story also includes descriptions of mankind's concern over "nothing" but emphasizes the solutions reached by mathematicians. The book is full of mathematical and physical concepts related to zero.
If one is interested in philosophy, read Kaplan. If Math is the desired area, read Seiff.
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75 of 79 people found the following review helpful By Alleyne on June 16, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I've recently read both Charles Seife's "Zero:The Biography of a Dangerous Idea" and Robert Kaplan's "The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero." They are at the same time very similar and very different. They each follow an almost identical line, presenting the evolution of zero chronologically, and they each make almost identical stops along the way. The difference is in how they treat the steps in zero's evolution which is conditioned by their differing metaphysical views. An illuminating example is how they each treat Aristotle's role in zero's history.
Charles Seife, from the beginning, reifies zero: the author accepts the misconception that zero is some sort of actually existing mystical force resting at the center of black holes. He doesn't step back to take a look at the concept as concept. Nor does he appear to keep in mind that mathematics is the science of measurement, or that time is not a force or dimension, but merely a measurement of motion. This distorts his perspective, from which he attempts to refute Aristotle's refutation of the existence of the void: for Seife, zero exists and is a force in and of itself. In Seife's hands, zero certainly is a dangerous idea!
Robert Kaplan, on the other hand, delves deeper. His work is informed by an obvious love for history and classic literature, and while this results in many obscure literary asides, one feels that this book takes part in the Great Conversation. As a result he steps back and takes a critical look at the true meaning and usefulness of the concept as a concept. Is zero a number? Is it noun, adjective, or verb? Does it actually exist outside of conceptual consciousness or is it exclusively a tool of the mind?
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70 of 82 people found the following review helpful By Caraculiambro on May 5, 2005
Format: Paperback
If for some reason you're jonesin' to read a history of the number zero, I would hie thee away from this book. Read instead Charles Seife's peerless "Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea," a very similar book (published around the same time, too) that is much more interesting and far more competently written.

Kaplan's book, while not atrocious, is nevertheless poorly brought off and demands a much stronger math background to enjoy -- despite what the blurb on the cover says.

I will admit, though, that, in addition to being a capable mathematician and scholar, Kaplan has organized and researched his tale well. Fatally, however, the guy can't seem to write in a natural, lucid way.

Here's a sample of the kind of opaque, gummy prose you're in store for if you tackle this book [p. 144]:

"Only selective forgetting of the past lets us move on, taking what was once dubious as the most banal of certainties, what was gained through struggle as our birthright. So with zero. The sermons it spoke in place-holding shrank to a letter of our thinking's alphabet, its volumes on solving equations to a sentence in mathematical primers."

And this is quite typical. Trust me: Seife is much more engaging, useful, and memorable. His book is considerably shorter than Kaplan's, however.
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 19, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I have no idea how anyone can even REMOTELY link this book to "Western supremancy," since it covers all cultures and periods with equal erudition and respect. The book is at once a philosophical meditation on the concept of zero, an engaging tour guide through the labyrinth of mathematics, an intimate (if highly abbreviated) biography of some of the foremost geniuses of our world, and a zestful and highly anecdotal history of the evolution of one branch of science. What's more, the writing is both sharp and lively (which is more than I can say about most popular-science titles). All in all, I'm very much impressed by this book.
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56 of 67 people found the following review helpful By Jim on November 29, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Kaplan's book is a tour de force. Bridging philosophy, history and, oh yes, mathematics, he takes us through a romp of human intellectual history. He makes the argument, that zero, like death, is at the base of a culture's understanding of the world. At the beginning of the book's journey, such a claim would seem outlandish, but by the end, we have returned home throughly convinced and pleased to have made the trip. It is a pleasure to read a creative mind at play.
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