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Charles Seife

Zero - the biography of a dangerous idea

Zero is a strange sort of number - for instance division by zero in a computer program causes all sorts of problems. This book is a look at the development of the concept of zero, and infinity, zero's twin, from ancient times to recent discoveries in cosmology and quantum physics. Aristotle tried to hide paradoxes associated with zero, with pronouncments such as 'Nature abhors a vacuum'. This held back the development of mathematics in the West, while in the East zero was accepted and the subject flourished. Eventually the usefulness of zero was accepted in the West, and mathematics took off agian, leading to the use of infinitesimals and the development of the calculus. I felt that the book would be very useful to someone learning calculus, as it gives a clear description of the ideas behind the subject.

The later part of the book looks at the concepts of zero and infinity in physics. Concepts looked at include absolute zero, the ultraviolet catastrophe and zero point energy. This is well written, giving a clear flavour of the ideas, without needing technicalities.

The book is fast moving devoting a couple of pages to each topic before moving on. To a large extent this succeeds, it has a lot of material of interest without getting boring. However, I did sometimes feel that some subjects weren't particularly related to zero, and that more space could have been given to those that were. That said, it was an enjoyable read, and has wide ranging appeal, being suitable for anybody who likes a bit of light reading on scientific and mathematical subjects.

Amazon.com info
Hardcover 256 pages  
ISBN: 067088457X
Salesrank: 112391
Weight:0.7 lbs
Published: 2000 Viking Adult
Amazon price $13.45
Marketplace:New from $13.45:Used from $1.22
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Amazon.co.uk info
Hardcover 248 pages  
ISBN: 0285635867
Salesrank: 804871
Weight:0.93 lbs
Published: 2000 Souvenir Press Ltd
Marketplace:New from £719.99:Used from £7.95
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Amazon.ca info
Hardcover 224 pages  
ISBN: 067088457X
Salesrank: 458842
Weight:0.7 lbs
Published: 2000 Viking USA
Marketplace:New from CDN$ 40.15:Used from CDN$ 2.51
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Product Description
A "biography" of the most vexing and troublesome number in human history reveals how the Babylonians invented it, why the Greeks were afraid of it and the Hindus worshipped, the role it played in hunting down heretics in the Middle Ages, and its current place in the Y2K issue. Original.