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Finding Zero: A Mathematician's Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers Hardcover – January 6, 2015
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“A captivating story, not just an intellectual quest but a personal one...[Aczel's] tale is gripping, filled with the passion and wonder of numbers.” ―Amir Alexander, The New York Times
“In his quest to find out whence the numbers came, Aczel crosses the globe, visiting India, Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere…in weaving together mathematics and history with his personal explorations, Aczel enables readers to experience the joy of the chase.” ―Scientific American
“In this combination of memoir, travelog, and philosophical musing, Aczel recounts his search for the origin of the numerals…Recommended for anyone who cares about the history of mathematics and science.” ―Library Journal
“Readers...accompany Aczel as he tests the limits of coldly cerebral Western mathematical logic against the stunning eroticism of numerical thinking in Hinduism, and weighs the truefalse reasoning of Aristotle against the bewildering four-prong logic of the Buddha...An exciting personal adventure reminding readers of how much nothing really means.” ―Booklist (starred review)
“Prolific mathematics writer Aczel leads a historical adventure that doubles as a surprisingly engaging math lesson...Readers may find themselves questioning Aczel's sanity, as his obsession with zero's origins drives him from one dead end to the next, but it's difficult to avoid being drawn into his quest with these rip-roaring exploits and escapades.” ―Publishers Weekly
“The author of the best-selling Fermat's Enigma (1996) and other popular books on mathematics and science takes readers through a history of zero and takes himself on a journey through the jungles of Cambodia to find its the earliest use. …the journey to zero is an adventure worth joining.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“The zero is the most precious mathematical legacy we have from medieval times. Without it, modern mathematics would be unthinkable. In this delightful book Amir Aczel engagingly explains its importance, while recounting his search for the earliest representation of zero ― and the drama that erupted when he found it.” ―Ian Tattersall, Curator Emeritus in the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History
“Amir Aczel is the Indiana Jones of the mathematical world, taking us on an enthralling adventure to find out where our numbers came from.” ―Marcus du Sautoy, professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and author of The Number Mysteries
“Venturing deep into the jungles of Southeast Asia amidst vine-enveloped stone ruins and cutthroat treasure hunters, math's own Indiana Jones uncovers the world's oldest written zero.” ―Grand Forks Herald
About the Author
Amir D. Aczel is the author of fifteen books, including The Riddle of the Compass, The Mystery of the Aleph, and the international bestseller Fermat's Last Theorem. An internationally known writer of mathematics and science, he is a fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He lives in Brookline, MA.
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Mr. Aczel does two things of importance in this book. First, he argues that the concept of zero would likely never have been developed in Western Europe. Essentially, he believes that the concept of zero developed out of the different logic that comes from historical Buddhism and Hinduism. Whereas Greek logic, for example, depended highly on an either/or system (exemplified through proof by contradiction), Buddhist and Hindu logic developed from a “true, not true, both, neither” logic that laid the groundwork for concepts like zero and infinity.
Second, he pushes the development of the concept of zero further to the East than India. In fact, he argues that it comes from Southeast Asia, as his search takes him to Thailand and, ultimately, to Cambodia. He is searching for a seventh-century stele called K-127, which records the earliest known use of a “modern” zero. Discovered in 1929 by a man named George Coedes, it disappeared during the wars of the sixties and seventies.
In fact, it is Mr. Aczel’s search for this stele that drives most of this book and this is one place where the book falls short. Much of it turns out to be a travelogue of his journey to the stele. Unfortunately, his ability to tell a compelling travel story is not nearly as strong as his ability to put mathematical concepts into an historical context. The prose comes across a bit flat. At least until he gets to the end of his journey. And, though it seems that Southeast Asia is the heart of the development of zero, it should be noted that these steles developed from the influence of Buddhism and Hinduism. That is, India.
Still, there is much to like about this book. There is something about having this stele, this physical manifestation of the zero, that is compelling, however boring the description of the search might be. And having this extended investigation into the invention of zero is something not to be missed for anyone interested in the history of mathematics.
If I am stingy with that last star, it is only because the book felt padded in spots.
Top international reviews
Planning to read some more work of Amir.
A must read for those who love mathematics, India and eastern culture.