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Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea Paperback – September 1, 2000


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The seemingly impossible Zen task--writing a book about nothing--has a loophole: people have been chatting, learning, and even fighting about nothing for millennia. Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, by noted science writer Charles Seife, starts with the story of a modern battleship stopped dead in the water by a loose zero, then rewinds back to several hundred years BCE. Some empty-headed genius improved the traditional Eastern counting methods immeasurably by adding zero as a placeholder, which allowed the genesis of our still-used decimal system. It's all been uphill from there, but Seife is enthusiastic about his subject; his synthesis of math, history, and anthropology seduces the reader into a new fascination with the most troubling number.

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

In a lively and literate first book, science journalist Seife takes readers on a historical, mathematical and scientific journey from the infinitesimal to the infinite. With clever devices such as humorously titled and subtitled chapters numbered from zero to infinity, Seife keeps the tone as light as his subject matter is deep. By book's end, no reader will dispute Seife's claim that zero is among the most fertile--and therefore most dangerous--ideas that humanity has devised. Equally powerful and dangerous is its inseparable counterpart, infinity, for both it and zero invoke to many the divine power that created an infinite universe from the void. The power of zero lies in such a contradiction, and civilization has struggled with it, alternatively seeking to ban and to embrace zero and infinity. The clash has led to holy wars and persecutions, philosophical disputes and profound scientific discoveries. In addition to offering fascinating historical perspectives, Seife's prose provides readers who struggled through math and science courses a clear window for seeing both the powerful techniques of calculus and the conundrums of modern physics: general relativity, quantum mechanics and their marriage in string theory. In doing so, Seife, this entertaining and enlightening book reveals one of the roots of humanity's deepest uncertainties and greatest insights. BOMC selection. (Feb.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 248 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (September 1, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140296476
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140296471
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (225 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #23,715 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Charles Seife is a correspondent for Science, a London--based international weekly science magazine. He has written for Scientific American, The Economist, Wired UK, The Sciences, and numerous other publications. He has a masters degree in mathematics from Yale.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

218 of 238 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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157 of 176 people found the following review helpful By Duwayne Anderson on May 13, 2005
Format: Paperback
This book is about the history of zero, from ancient times to modern concepts. It's quite interesting and encompasses a lot of mathematics and philosophy as well as a bit of physics.

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.
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74 of 81 people found the following review helpful By Pat on December 22, 2001
Format: Paperback
Quite a few books recently have chosen the history of zero and the vacuum as their subject, and Seife's book is the clunker of the group. He has the dubious honor of bringing a tabloid style to math writing; his pages are replete with hyberbole and lame puns, as well as sometimes potty-mouthed in-jokes about mathematicians and various historical personages (Martin Luther in particular) that simply do not belong here.
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.
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