26 July 2000

Book review: Zero, the Biography of a Dangerous Idea (2000) by Charles Seife, *****


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.


A fascinating book for the non-mathematical minds like mine. I was mostly struck by the philosophical implications of the concept of zero. I would never have thought that a number could have had such impact on religion, politics and indeed our way of life. The main concept I came away with is that zero, the twin brother of infinity, was not recognized as suchin antiquity. In fact it was expressely rejected by most ancient civilizations, and remarkably so by Aristotle: his theory of a "prime mover" of a finite universe (God) was taken up for two millennia by priests of various religions and catholic popes. To reject Aristotle and accept Giordano Bruno (there may be, indeed, there probably are other worlds and the universe is not finite) was heretical: there was no need for a prime mover any more and, ...might there be other popes besides the one on earth? Giordano Bruno paid with his life for defending infinity and, therefore, zero.

We have obviously and luckily moved beyond that by now, but zero has not yet become a familiar concept for most of us. Most people, if asked, will start counting from 1, though 0 is the first number. Most celebrated the new millennium one year early, on 31 December 1999, because they were unaware that there was no year 0, but the 3rd millennium began on 1 january 2001. And 0 is placed after 9 in the keyboard of my computer, and not before 1, where it should be.

This is not a heavy math book, but a pleasure to read for the scientifically minded, especially if you have a propensity to look for the root causes of philosophy and politics.