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"Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea" by Charles Seife

A simple book written with a chunk of information about the number Zero. That must mean that nothing is something.

Yes, a book about the birth of the number Zero—a number the Greeks avoided because of its unpleasant significance of the Void while the others found it a Godsend. It's almost hard to believe that a simple harmless (*ahem*) number could cause such overbearing, yet an over-intellectualization, of what such a number could represent. Come on guys, it's "just" a number.

Author Charles Seife starts from the very beginning of civilization to when humans tried recording quantities—counting—and its historical background. All throughout, you learn about the famous names and their contributions to Mathematics, from Aristotle to Einstein. And yes, you learn about Aristotle's preachings and how the Greeks did Math without zeroes (talk about difficult, but they seemed to do it). Oddly enough, the Hindus loved Zero because the Void closely relates to their Hindu god Brahma and wholeheartedly welcomed the concept of the number symbolic of "nothing." Along with it, you also learn about Zero's partner, Infinity, and its role in Math.

In addition to the history, author Seife has done a wonderful job in introducing various mathematical concepts and subjects without injecting high-strung vocabulary that may confuse the reader. Even better, he does it in a friendly way so much so that you'll be able to understand, and if in case you're at all interested, he has listed more information on the Appendixes and on his bibliographies. No doubt, Math does take a lot of practice and learning, but books like these are what brings an inspiration to the reader to learn and master the history of problem solving.

Near the end, Seife declares Zero as the ultimate winner in everything—everything. You learn why physicists everywhere try to avoid coming into zero as the finality of all problem solving, and various quirks that keep the Universe running. While I truly understand, it has made me feel a little concerned about the power Zero has had since its "birth." Think about it: philosophers/logicians have said, "There's no such thing as free lunch," which Seife has quoted in the book (also the second law of Thermodynamics). To translate that famous quote, it means you can't get something from nothing. This brings us to a question we still haven't had an answer to: why is there something instead of nothing?

It's not all pure Mathematics but you get a gist of some Physics, Astronomy and Cosmology. Don't be fooled by this small book as it has a lot of information, all in fool-proof, understandable writing that any reader that grasp. Well, okay, perhaps the only prerequisite is you know some Pre-Algebra but that's very much it! I think this little book makes the perfect companion for your Math book library.

Let's admit it: Zero is the perfect number. I'll let you do the thinking for that.





  • Gentle writing all throughout.
  • Fascinating history about a number we take for granted.
  • Received "The [2015] Book of the Year Award" by The Seeds of Books.
  • Also received the "PEN/Martha Albrand" Reward.
  • None.
100% (A+)
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Title Zero

The Biography of a Dangerous Idea
Author(s) Charles Seife
Description The Babylonians invented it, the Greeks banned it, the Hindus worshipped it, and the Church used it to fend off heretics. For centuries, the power of zero savored of the demonic; once harnessed, it became the most powerful tool in mathematics. Zero follows this number from its birth as an Eastern philosophical concept to its struggle for acceptance in Europe and its apotheosis as the mystery of the black hole. Today, zero lies at the heart of one of the biggest scientific controversies of all time, the quest for the theory of everything. Elegant, witty, and enlightening, Zero is a compelling look at the strangest number in the universe—and one of the greatest paradoxes of human thought.
Dedication --
ISBN 0-14-029647-6
Book Dimensions Width: 7.44″
Height: 5.0″
Depth: 0.5″ (½″)
Page Count 256
Contents Chapter 0-Chapter ∞, Appendix A-Appendix E, Selected Bibliography, Acknowledgements, Index
[Book] Design by Jaye Zimet
Illustration Credits Pages 30, 31, 69, 85: Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Page 65: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri (Purchase: Nelson Trust)

Page 86: Perspective by Jan Vredeman de Vries, Henricus Hondius, Leiden, Netherlands, 1604 (published by Dover Publications, New York, 1968)

All other drawings by Matt Zimet
Author Photograph --
Published September 1, 2000
Publisher Penguin Books (www.penguinputnam.com)
Copyright © Charles Seife, 2000
Printed in United States of America
Book Format Paperback, Kindle, Hardcover, Audio, Cassette
Quoted Reviews "Written with clarity and infectious enthusiasm that are rare in science writing, and practically unknown among those who dare to explain mathematics. Zero is really something." —The Washington Post

"A stunning chronicle of the denial, heresy, and grudging acceptance of zero and its companion concepts, infinity and the void." —U.S. News & World Report

"Zero may be nothing, but a lot comes of Charles Seife's story...which is charming and enlightening....After finishing, his readers will feel they've experienced a considerable something." —The New York Times

"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 sciences 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." — Boston Globe

"The greatest 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 lucid and common sensical." — Salon
Awards WINNER PEN/Martha Albrand Award
Other Charles Seife the author of Sun in a Bottle, Decoding the Universe and Alpha & Omega. Zero won him the PEN/ Martha Albrand Award for first nonfiction book and was named a New York Times Notable Book. An associate professor of journalism at New York University, he has written for Science magazine, New Scientist, Scientific American, The Sciences, Wired, The Economist and many other publications. He lives in New York City.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 1. Zero (The number).
I. Title.
CIP Number 99-36693
LC Control Number 94048537
LC Call Number QA141.S45  2000
DDC Call Number 511.2´11—dc21


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