Years ago, I mentioned in the CBR comments that I was interested in learning more about the beauty of math, but that I was awful at math. Some benevolent commentator told me that Charles Seife’s Zero was a great book about the beauty of math for a lay person. I can’t remember the person who told me that, but I’m appreciative of the recommendation.
After years of sitting on my digital shelf, late last year this piece of niche non-fic finally got its time in the limelight. I enjoyed Seife’s book on a bite-by-bite basis; it was the audiobook I listened to while walking my dog for the past couple of months. I’m also sure my neighbors appreciated the recommendation, because I know I kept making Robert De Niro “I don’t know – maybe” faces every few minutes when the narrator explained something that blew my mind. Neighorhood comic relief. My dog probably didn’t care for my frequent slowing downs and stoppings, though.
Seife begins by exploring the origins of zero in the East and the fear of it in the West. The number or concept may seem self-evident to us, but the number was not only the source of intellectual debate, but also inspired serious fights concerning cosmology and religion. Some of these had to do with accepting the ideas of void, nothingness, fullness, emptiness, and chaos. Can there truly be nothing?
Even when zero made sense to many in the world for counting purposes or placeholding purposes, others couldn’t accept it because of what it did to their respect for the Greeks or even their calendars. (Here’s a great point that most of us will understand – Should the first year be year 0 or 1? A baby isn’t one when they are born, but when something is new it’s year one of the project, right? When does a new century or millennia start? Answers have varied and this is something that has messed up calendar translations periodically over time. The point is that zero is sometimes weird to us, too.)
Personally my favorite parts of this book had to do with certain cultures’ differences in counting groupings and accepting the idea of zero. That was following closely (in history and interest) in why certain people couldn’t accept zero for cosmological reasons. I was interested in why zero has gone in and out of fashion based on our changing ideas of precision and possibility in physics, but I admit that the back half of the book didn’t make as much sense to me as a person who was…not great at math.
The narrator of this audiobook was great, but if I could do this over I would’ve read the hard copy to try and retain some of the factoids and concepts.