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Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea Paperback – September 1, 2000
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Why did the Church reject the use of zero? How did mystics of all stripes get bent out of shape over it? Is it true that science as we know it depends on this mysterious round digit? Zero opens up these questions and lets us explore the answers and their ramifications for our oh-so-modern lives. Seife has fun with his format, too, starting with chapter 0 and finishing with an appendix titled "Make Your Own Wormhole Time Machine." (Warning: don't get your hopes up too much.) There are enough graphs and equations to scare off serious numerophobes, but the real story is in the interactions between artists, scientists, mathematicians, religious and political leaders, and the rest of us--it seems we really do have nothing in common. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
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?Read more ›
Although the book reads well, is nicely documented, and extensively researched, the author has a style that I found aggravating; his frequent use of poetic hyperbole. This limits the book's value for someone unfamiliar with basic concepts in mathematics and physics.
I'm not sure why Seife choose this style. There seems to be a movement (hopefully short lived) among science writers to dress up science and mathematics in poetic, flowery language. Whatever the reason, science has good reason to use strict meanings for words and a disciplined approach to scientific concepts. When authors poetically use words in technically incorrect ways they can make the prose pretty, but they often create confusion.
For example, Saif says "Zero and infinity are eternally locked in a struggle to engulf all the numbers. Like a Manichaean nightmare, the two sit on opposite poles of the number sphere, sucking numbers in like tiny black holes." [p. 145]
From a mathematical point of view this is pure gibberish. If one's intent is to educate others about mathematics, such poetic hyperbole is not only useless, but counter productive as well. For folks who don't already know a bit about mathematics, Seife's book is as likely to confuse as to educate. For those who already understand the concepts, the poetry might be pleasing, but from an educational point of view the hyperbole found throughout this book is a definite stumbling block.
Another problem I had with this book is the way Seife misstates some key aspects in modern science.Read more ›
This might be a pardonable sin, but Seife combines this problem with two others that are less forgivable-- frequent errors and outright arrogance. I could go on at length, but a review in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society captures the problems best. (...)
As Gray points out in the review, Seife says contradictory things about the Mayan calendar, in one place claiming that it is more consistent than the Gregorian (by including a zero year in the calendar) but then showing how the mixing of 3 different calendars led to confusion about the days. At one point the book also notes how zero was an ancient concept beginning thousands of years before the first civilization, but later suggests it started just a few centuries before Christ in the Fertile Crescent. Seife's book is full of these maddening little errors, which together suggest that he was not thorough in his research and proofreading.
Seife's discussion of the history of calculus is woeful, as Gray further notes. Seife conflates the history of Newtonian calculus with its representation in differential equation form, and exaggerates the importance of the indeterminate expression-- 0/0-- and its confrontation via L'Hopital's rule, in establishing the foundation of the calculus.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
A well written biography, if you can call it that, of the mind bending concepts in mathematics. Well illustrated for the lay man, it defines complex ideas in plain English.Published 11 days ago by Alan W.
One of the things that frustrated me was hearing folks telling me that any number divided by zero is undefined. I always thought that answer was slap-dash. Read morePublished 2 months ago by Ronald Araujo
this is a wonderful story. It's told in a very interesting manner and covers all the technical aspects of engineering and mathematics. You will reread it, I'm sure. Read morePublished 3 months ago by tian
What a fun read and listen. While the book would more correctly be called Zero and Infinity since it's much about 1/0 as it is about zero itself and even delves into the Cantor... Read morePublished 3 months ago by Jeffrey
I have read all the comments, because I wanted to potentially assign this book as reading for my undergraduate mathematics courses. Read more
This is a well-written biography by Charles Seife of a dangerous idea, which takes the reader from the realism of basic arithmetic (the beginning and use of one) to a faith-based... Read morePublished 6 months ago by Digmansworld