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The Nothing that Is: A Natural History of Zero Paperback – December 7, 2000
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"For my money, the best popular mathematics book ever written."--Margaret Wertheim, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Get this book. Read it. Think long and hard and sweetly about what the human mind is for: The gift of thinking, the joy and fulfillment of searching for the truth."--Michael Pakenham, The Baltimore Sun
"Deeply informed, lucidly written, this engaging work is a thought-provoking inquiry into a significant topic in the history of human thought."--Frederick Pratter, Christian Science Monitor
"Elegant, discursive, and littered with quotes and allusions from Aquinas via Gershwin to Woolf.... A book that will give a lot of readers pleasure and inform them, by stealth, at the same time. A fine holiday present for any mathematically inclined friend or relative."--Ian Stewart, The Times (London)
"Philosophy, poetry, astronomy, linguistics--readers will marvel at what Kaplan draws out of nothing.... Written in a wonderfully eclectic and unpredictable style.... Kaplan leavens his mathematics with piquant illustrations and lively humor, thus extending his audience even to readers generally indifferent to numbers."--Booklist
"Where did the familiar hollow circle that we use to denote zero come from? That's a story fraught with mystery, and Mr. Kaplan tells it well.... Kaplan, a popularizer of mathematics who has taught at Harvard, is an erudite and often witty writer."--Jim Holt, Wall Street Journal
"It is a true delight to read Robert Kaplan's The Nothing That Is. Full of remarkable historical facts about zero, it is both illuminating and entertaining, touching deeper issues of mathematics and philosophy in a very accessible way."--Sir Roger Penrose, Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, and the author of The Emperor's New Mind
"An attempt to do for Zero what Dava Sobel did for Longitude.... Kaplan has a light touch.... The effect is of a knowledgeable uncle suddenly prompted on a summer's afternoon to tell you all he knows on his favorite subject."--Jeremy Gray, The Sunday Times
"It is hard to imagine that an entertaining, informative book could be written about nothing, but Robert Kaplan has done it brilliantly. Starting with the great invention of zero as a place holder, Kaplan takes you through the use of zero in algebra, and in calculus where equating a derivative to zero magically calculates maxima and minima, to the importance of the null set. His book closes with that unthinkable question, `Why is there something rather than nohting?' on which one cannot long meditate without fear of going mad."--Martin Gardner, former columnist for Scientific American and author of Relativity Simply Explained
About the Author
Robert Kaplan has taught mathematics to people from six to sixty, most recently at Harvard University. In 1994, with his wife Ellen, he founded The Math Circle, a program, open to the public, for the enjoyment of pure mathematics. He has also taught Philosophy, Greek, German, Sanskrit, and Inspired Guessing. Robert Kaplan lives in Cambridge, MA.
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For the record, I have a BA in Math.
The belabored explanations of equations, graphs and concepts had me yell out, "Get on with it!" more than once.
There also appeared some strangely antiquated terms that were stunningly out of place considering the publication date. Mohammadean? Seriously?
As negative as my outlook is, there are strengths to this book. The author's poetic style is at times charming and there are a few moments where his descriptions and explanations are really quite enlightening. If you too are well versed in the classics, European history, and philosophy, maybe you will enjoy the brainy meandering of this book. The bottom line, I felt, was that such a rambling, poetic style worked quite contrary to explaining the topic at hand.
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." It's far more straightforward and its style is far more conducive to understanding the material. However, I believe Kaplan gives a far better rendering of Hinduism and Buddhism than did Seife.
But this is by no means a disqualifying factor. The book is actually well-written overall and very thoroughly researched. There are some reviews that pout over the author's conclusions regarding the historical origin of the concept of zero but these conclusions are well-documented and the assessment comes honestly enough. If you truly disagree, then do your own research and write your own book! As this is much more than a simple historical review of the origins of the concept of nothing in mathematics, even if you disagree with the author's conclusions, there is still much to explore and learn.
Most of all, this book does and excellent idea of documenting why the very concept of zero was so hard to come by and gives the reading a reasonable understanding that this is no insignificant advancement in human understanding.
It was so dull, I couldn't even finish it.
Kaplan's book looks at all the aspects of Zero, from what it meant, to the symbols used for it and where they might have come from, to its importance in mathematics and for that matter in philosophy. His note at the front of the book suggests that the reader need only have had high-school algebra and geometry, but to get the most out of this book it would be better to have had some higher math, as well as a full and well-rounded education as Kaplan makes references which hit on a number of areas.
The book itself almost defies being placed into a category. There are elements of history, philosophy, psychology, and of course math contained in its seventeen chapters (appropriately starting with chapter Zero). The first nine chapters have a great deal to do with the history of the number and the symbol used for it, and how it impacted Mesopotamia, Greece, India, and even a chapter on how it was perceived in Mayan culture.
The book then transitions from more of a history to more about how Zero is used in mathematics, covering issues such as what is the a number to the power of 0, and then by extension what is 0 to the power of 0. It also touches on Zero's important relative Infinity. Note that the chapters almost always offer a blend of history, math, and other subjects, and I am merely offering my perspective on where the greater focus is in each of these sections.
Later in the book, the focus becomes much wider, looking at Zero's impact on different areas of society, including everything from literature to technology with the coming of binary systems such as computers. Kaplan somehow manages to contain all this in a book of fewer than 220 pages, so the pages and chapters are packed with a lot to think about.
The weakness of the book is that it doesn't easily fit into any category. It is not a scholarly treatment of the subject, and in fact Kaplan admits that some of what he writes is based on weak evidence, or in his words he has "tried to bridge a chasm on the slenderest threads of evidence". At the same time, I would not think this is a good book for a novice to math, or history, or many other subjects. As a result, there is probably a rather limited audience for this type of book.
As much as I love the subject, I am going to round down to three stars overall, partially due to the issues with finding an audience for the book as it is written, and partially due to the huge number of references he makes, without providing notes and a bibliography. To be fair he does provide a link to these in his "Note to the Reader" at the front of the book, but one can only hope that the link remains there for as long as this book is available.