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Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea [Paperback]

Charles Seife
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 7 2000
The Babylonians invented it, the Greeks banned it, the Hindus worshiped it, and the Church used it to fend off heretics. Now it threatens the foundations of modern physics. For centuries the power of zero savored of the demonic; once harnessed, it became the most important tool in mathematics. For zero, infinity's twin, is not like other numbers. It is both nothing and everything.

In Zero, Science Journalist Charles Seife follows this innocent-looking number from its birth as an Eastern philosophical concept to its struggle for acceptance in Europe, its rise and transcendence in the West, and its ever-present threat to modern physics. Here are the legendary thinkers—from Pythagoras to Newton to Heisenberg, from the Kabalists to today's astrophysicists—who have tried to understand it and whose clashes shook the foundations of philosophy, science, mathematics, and religion. Zero has pitted East against West and faith against reason, and its intransigence persists in the dark core of a black hole and the brilliant flash of the Big Bang. Today, zero lies at the heart of one of the biggest scientific controversies of all time: the quest for a theory of everything.

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From Amazon

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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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
By J.W.
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
1.0 out of 5 stars Seems like a different book after chapter 6 Jan. 30 2004
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
1.0 out of 5 stars Not recommended Nov. 15 2003
By SuzieQ
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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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Maximum Enjoyment: Zero Effort
The humour amid the facts, the light touch on mathematical areas, and the easy flow of information make this book a delight to read. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Dr. Brenda Molloy-Measures
3.0 out of 5 stars On par
If you're looking for a book that gives a little bit of the history of math, this is your book. It's slow-paced and short, and I was personally not interested by the writing... Read more
Published on Sept. 8 2011 by estrellaespirit
4.0 out of 5 stars A lot more than zero
Seife writes eloquantly about zero and its evil twin brother infinity in an easy to read, easy to understand text that is highly recommended. Read more
Published on Jan. 29 2010 by Gord McKenna
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, Lively and Wide-Ranging
This is a book about the concept of zero throughout the ages - from pre-historic times when counting began (but zero was not needed) to the present. Read more
Published on April 2 2009 by G. Poirier
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic Read
I would never have believed it myself, but of all the books sitting in my shelf, this is one of those that I reread the most. Read more
Published on Sept. 23 2007 by Vick
4.0 out of 5 stars not so dangerous
as the title suggests, this book is not so dangerous...but, very interesting...found it to be informative and a definite read for all high school addicts and wanna bees... Read more
Published on Dec 7 2005 by barb shaver
4.0 out of 5 stars Zero is fundamental
Entertaining book for students of philosophy, historians, and math neophytes, but Seife's simple-minded application of the principle of the conservation of energy to the quantum... Read more
Published on June 24 2004
3.0 out of 5 stars A good summary
Despite the abstract nature of it's subject matter, this book is a surprisingly breezy and informative read about the history of zero and it's value in the mathematics (and... Read more
Published on June 16 2004 by Wombat
1.0 out of 5 stars Jumbled mess of ideas
This is a mildly interesting and entertaining book about history of zero that unfortunately tries to be too cute with its style and to pull in so many unrelated ideas, it loses... Read more
Published on May 26 2004
4.0 out of 5 stars Zero is not just a number, its a way of life
A very interesting book. The Author shows how mindsets, philosophies and cultures had to change to enable the Zero to be accepted. Read more
Published on May 12 2004 by J. head
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