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Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea Paperback – September 1, 2000
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“Mathematicians, contrary to popular misconception, are often the most lucid of writers (Bertrand Russell won a Nobel Prize not in mathematics but in literature), and Seife is a welcome example. He writes with an understated charm that takes account of human fear, the mistakes of geniuses and the mind’s grandest ambitions.”
—Atlanta Journal Constitution
“Zero emerges as a daunting intellectual riddle in this fascinating chronicle. With remarkable economy, Seife urges his readers to peer through the zero down into the abyss of absolute emptiness and out into the infinite expanse of space. . . . Deftly and surely, Seife recounts the historical debates, then swiftly rolls the zero right up to the present day, where he plunges through its perilous opening down into the voracious maw of a black hole, and then out into the deep freeze of an ever cooling cosmos. A must read for every armchair physicist.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“His narrative . . . shifts smoothly from history and philosophy to science and technology, and his prose displays a gift for making complex ideas clear.”
—The Dallas Morning News
“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. . . . 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. . . . In doing so . . . this entertaining and enlightening book reveals one of the roots of humanity’s deepest uncertainties and greatest insights.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Even innumerates . . . can appreciate the intricate web of conceptual connections Seife illuminates.”
“The greater part of this book tells a fascinating human story with skill and wit . . . we come to appreciate the surprising depth and richness of ‘simple’ concepts such as zero and infinity—and their remarkable links to the religion and culture of earlier civilizations and to present-day science.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Seife . . . recounts his story as an accomplished science journalist, standing on the outside to bring clarity to complex ideas. . . . the crisp explanations are refreshing . . . straightforward and bright.”
—The New York Times
“Seife has a talent for making the most ball-busting of modern theories . . . seem fairly lucid and common sensical.”
About the Author
Charles Seife is the author of five previous books, including Proofiness and Virtual Unreality. He has written for a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times, Wired, New Scientist, Science, Scientific American, and The Economist. He is a professor of journalism at New York University and lives in New York City.
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I have read all the comments, because I wanted to potentially assign this book as reading for my undergraduate mathematics courses. The low ratings have some very good points, but let's face it... this is a pop-history of zero, not a graduate thesis, or a mathematical proof.
Here are my interpretations after reading the book and reviewing the comments:
1. I see some math-sticklers really hate this book. If you want a math book that is full of equations or a text book, this is NOT for you
2. If you want a light-hearted and fun introduction to how math developed with cultures and customs, this book is fantastic--at least through chapter six. (It takes a turn afterwards and moves toward the number 3 point below.)
3. Remember the title of this book--that should indicate that the author is taking a concept (a simple mathematical one) and stretching the interpretation so that this concept becomes something more meaningful and awesome.
To accomplish number 3, the author takes liberties in analyzing and interpreting past events to create the "dangerous idea" through chapter 6. These are then synthesized into the final cosmological nature of this philosophically "dangerous idea" in the remaining chapters.
The final product was educational, fun, and thought-provoking.
One of my faults is that I have almost no confidence in my math skills, but I didn't need to know the math in this because the concepts were explained so well. I've seen many reviews about this book that complain about it having too many hyperbole. If you're lousy at any math higher than algebra, but you can follow some of the concepts about cosmology on the Science Channel, this book is not only perfect, but the hyperbole help you understand the concepts.
Best of all, the book helped me better understand what actually happens when you divide by zero, not through mathematical equations that I can't translate, but in lay terms.
My limited understanding was base solely on bits and pieces I was fed by teachers and the media.
Now I feel my understanding has come to full circle as much as is possible based on what has been discovered - to the point of Mr. Seifes writing.
This book focuses on the history of Zero for the most part. In there it touches upon historical moments in mathematics and later in physics as it gets to the modern scientific era. I personally found the research on the early history quite on point and very fun to read (there's a lengthy bibliography at the end if you feel the need to see his words backed up). The sensational writing didn't bother me at all, because I realize the relationship between the title and the style. Seife is trying to make nothing exciting! If you didn't get that point or got annoyed with that style then you missed out on a really fun read. The author tried to include fairly random historical anecdotes about the people discussed to lighten the mood in the book. I thought these were fun additions and interesting to read as well.
Overall the book is written in decently easy to understand language. I have a fairly decent mathematical background and I didn't feel I really needed to know everything to read the first half of the book. However, when Seife starts delving into concepts like Calculus and Set Theory I think knowing how to do calculus was definitely a help in understanding this section. If you're more of a lay reader and more interested in the history than the math then this book really might be a bad choice. The first part is absolutely fascinating, but it does get confusing towards the end, especially when he starts delving into Quantum Theory and Particle Physics.
One aspect on the section of early history that I found particularly fascinating was the relation of zero to philosophy. The ancients were heavily influenced by beliefs and philosophy so it's not much of a stretch to think this influence stretched beyond just those subjects and into math and science. So when Pythagoras and Aristotle reject notions of the void philosophically it's reasonable to assume they would find such notions nonsense mathematically. For a long time, and still today, Math is merely a representation of the world we see and observe. They didn't observe voids or vacuum's during Aristotle's time so naturally they wouldn't exactly latch onto it as a real possibility. One thing that really fascinated me was the possible hindrance philosophy and belief (or religion) had in holding back mankind's ability to progress mathematically. The main reason that zero didn't make it into the western world probably had more to do with the stranglehold the Romans put on the people than with their unwilling to believe in the void or infinity, which is also why it was trade that finally used zero. However, there were intellectuals alive and breathing during the Dark Ages and a lot of their hindrance to accept concepts like zero was philosophical. The Church had adopted Aristotle's model of the universe and it was blatantly wrong. (This book does not say Aristotle is at fault for holding back people philosophically, it merely says his view/model, that the Earth is the center of the universe, is wrong. Which it is.) However, the rising power of the Catholic Church adopted his explanation and said it was a fact and back then their word was law. Once mathematics and science came across discrepancies in that proof then Church asserted its power and only tried to tighten its grip on those communities until people revolted against it. I'm not saying zero is the reason we got out of the Dark Ages, but it didn't hurt us any! It probably helped us a lot more in the long run. My point in bringing this up is that things like belief and philosophy can hinder progress in fields like the sciences. (These are not beliefs, as in making assumptions about testable criteria by the way.) It seems to make more sense, that if you must derive some divine notion, you would interpret the data, not try to fit the data into a preconceived belief. Thus belief would interpret the math and math would not interpret the belief. The ancients had this backwards for a long time, which I think that's a major factor and this book touches upon that.
As I mentioned above the book can change gears into something very complicated. I think this is kind of the downfall of this book for some people because the confusing explanations at the end leave them on a low note. As the book progressed and got beyond my mathematical understanding I found the explanations a lot more confusing. When it finally got out of the confusing areas I think it picked up again during the sections on the expansion of the universe. I enjoyed the parts of Zero Point energy, but I'm not entirely sure it's written in a fashion that is easily understood. Seife makes comments in a very historical manner and I think that really confuses people at times. Such as one reviewer complained that the books information is outdated on Vacuums and concepts like limitless energy. However, this book does touch on that subject during its discussion of Zero Point energy, maybe it was merely presented in a way that confused readers? I'm not entirely sure; I didn't personally feel confused until he started talking about Set Theory, which I clearly need to brush up on.
In the end I simply loved this book. I tore through it in a mere three days and I'm a pretty slow reader. I personally didn't mind the sensationalizing of zero to fairly emphatic levels. This is a book about nothing after all and you might as well make it sound really exciting! Maybe there should've been more exclamation points so we can see how impressive the author's thoughts really are! Anyway I had fun with this book, but I wouldn't recommend it to people that haven't made it beyond calculus or else the second half might get a little confusing. Previously understanding Einstein's work would be a bonus to getting through this book as well. Other than that the first half is absolutely fascinating and I feel I walked away with more knowledge than I went in even if the book repeated a lot of things I already knew.
Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5