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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: 226733
Weight:0.7 lbs
Published: 2000 Viking Adult
Amazon price $14.00
Marketplace:New from $14.00:Used from $1.92
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Amazon.co.uk info
Hardcover 248 pages  
ISBN: 0285635867
Salesrank: 1601347
Weight:0.93 lbs
Published: 2000 Souvenir Press Ltd
Marketplace::Used from £15.00
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Amazon.ca info
Hardcover 224 pages  
ISBN: 067088457X
Salesrank: 536945
Weight:0.7 lbs
Published: 2000 Viking USA
Marketplace:New from CDN$ 42.83:Used from CDN$ 9.99
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Product Description
A concise and appealing look at the strangest number in the universe and its continuing role as one of the great paradoxes of human thought

The Babylonians invented it, the Greeks banned it, the Hindus worshiped it, and the Church used it to fend off heretics. Now, as Y2K fever rages, it threatens a technological apocalypse. 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.

Readers of Fermat's Enigma, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, Seeing and Believing, and Longitudewill find the revealingly illustrated Zero freshly informative, easy to understand, and--infinitely--fascinating.