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Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea Paperback – Sep 7 2000


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Paperback Book Club edition (Sept. 7 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140296476
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140296471
  • Product Dimensions: 20.3 x 13 x 2.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 181 g
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (90 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #29,544 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents


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The story of zero is an ancient one. Read the first page
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By J.W. on April 4 2004
Format: Paperback
The title of this book is "Zero: the Biography of a Dangerous Idea." Certainly, what Charles Seife wrote does not disappoint: it IS a biography of zero. It starts from its conception in early history, and progresses to outline its development in history through the branches of mathematics, physics, art, and even philosophy. A previous reader was disappointed that the book took time to focus on physics and philosophy, but keep in mind that zero is not limited only to the mathematical realm. Indeed, it is pervasive in society, and it has affected the way we view the world. So to talk about zero yet disregard its important contributions to fields other than mathematics would be a travesty.
Seife's book is a very engaging and enlightening read. Seife looks at how zero has become: the foundation for calculus (taking limits to zero), a revolutionary idea in art (3d drawings have a point of infinity to give depth perception...and infinity and zero are just different sides of the same coin), an important concept of the numberline, and many other places. Indeed, I have read this book many times, sometimes for a quick browse and sometimes for an indepth read, and it has always been a pleasure to read.
Moreover, Seife is very knowledgeable in what he writes, and he brings a sense of humor as well--if you have ever read his article about the debate on cold fusion in 'Science' or 'Scientific American' (it was one or the other, its been a while since that article was published in the early 90s I believe) you'll see his sense of humor in his concluding paragraph (cold fusion or confusion anyone?).
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Sadiehawk on Jan. 30 2004
Format: Paperback
Without doubt, this book has one of the best "Chapter 5's" I've ever read. "Infinite Zeros and Infidel Mathematicians" is everything a reader could want in a book. Up to chapter 5, Seife has traced the history of zero and its appearance in European math systems, starting from its origins in the Middle East to its careening path eastward and westward. Chapters 0 and 1 are a bit plodding but 2-4 are more than adequate. Chapter 5, as well as Chapter 6, is wonderful-- this is where Seife speaks about how zero was essential for the scientific revolution in europe, with calculus, Newton, Leibniz, and Kepler. The discussions on L'Hopital's rule and fluxions are a little confusing, but their minor quibbles here. What makes these two chapters so useful is that Seife talks about all those weird mathematical problems with scary symbols and confusing references that we're all familiar with from math class, and does a really good job. He uses intuitive descriptions to make sense out of otherwise incomprehensible concepts-- a tangent, for example, is explained by pointing out how an object swung on a string, when released, flies in a tangent line to the string's curve, with the same going for a ball released by a pitcher moving an arm in an arc before releasing the baseball. Also useful is the explanation of the two foci of an ellipse, with the description of lines of light sent out from one focus ultimately reflecting and centering upon the next focus. I encountered all these concepts in math class and couldn't understand why they were important or what they meant, and Seife explains the origins of these problems, their importance, and how all those terms and equations came about. He makes the difficult seem intuitive.Read more ›
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By SuzieQ on Nov. 15 2003
Format: Paperback
This book was recommended to us as "ancillary reading" in Maths because it supposedly 1. would improve our understanding of how zero entered modern number systems and allowed for the foundations of calculus, and 2. help us to understand how the approaching-the-limit procedures basic to calculus are actually used in some applicable examples. It has done neither. The book jumps around far too much in its treatment of the history part. It would have better served its subject by more coherently examining how and why zero was initially left out and the practical reasons that it was let back into mathematics. The author seems to believe that there was some kind of philosophical conspiracy against the poor number among the Greeks, but the omission of zero from early number systems seems to result more from the fact that early civilisations did not find it useful in their daily affairs, except insofar as the Babylonians used it as a place-holder. Its acceptance later had more to do with its utility to merchants than to a philosophical "awakening" as the author seems to believe, and he should have given more attention to this commercial aspect.
The second part of the book, which considers the uses of zero in practical mathematics and technical fields, suffers from the same flaw that hampers the first part. The author is far too enamoured of zero as a sort of semi-philosophical keystone and he fails to explain why zero's inclusion has been truly useful. He becomes self-indulgent in the extent to which he admires the number and gets drawn so astray in the admiration of his subject that a dispassionate reader is left wondering what his point is. The latter pages are an especial let-down because the author briefly talks about some interesting subjects in physics and astronomy without addressing them in proper depth or making sense out of them. Disappointing overall.
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