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Hardcover The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero Book

ISBN: 0195128427

ISBN13: 9780195128420

The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero

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Book Overview

A symbol for what is not there, an emptiness that increases any number it's added to, an inexhaustible and indispensable paradox. As we enter the year 2000, zero is once again making its presence felt. Nothing itself, it makes possible a myriad of calculations. Indeed, without zero mathematics as we know it would not exist. And without mathematics our understanding of the universe would be vastly impoverished. But where did this nothing, this hollow...

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

Diving into nothing

I write this review not only for its own sake, but to reply to the common complaints about it.To be fair, it is true that this is not an easy read. However, this is less due to the prose of the author than it is to the great seriousness which he devotes to this concept. The further that you read into this book, the more it is clear that the concept of zero is so interwoven into every fabric of what has created our civilization that it is impossible to discuss it without summoning philosophy, religion, language, art... nothing, as this book shows, is truly in everything.It is also true that there is no bibliography, and I too would like to look at some of the sources Kaplan uses. However, to say, as some people claim, that Kaplan had an agenda in re-writing history is not at all reinforced by the evidence. As he wades through the murky origins of this number (and concept), he takes pains to give ample amounts of evidence. His result doesn't dictate, but instead lets the reader decide.Based on the number of 1-star reviews this has gotten, it clearly is not for everyone. However, I worked my way through it, and if I rushed at the end, it was only because I was insistent on finishing it so I could immediately give it to a friend who was interested in this concept as well. This one takes work: but in my opinion, it's a price well paid for a fanastic book on one of the most elusive of concepts.

Well Reasoned - A Great Read

I've recently read both Charles Seife's "Zero:The Biography of a Dangerous Idea" and Robert Kaplan's "The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero." They are at the same time very similar and very different. They each follow an almost identical line, presenting the evolution of zero chronologically, and they each make almost identical stops along the way. The difference is in how they treat the steps in zero's evolution which is conditioned by their differing metaphysical views. An illuminating example is how they each treat Aristotle's role in zero's history.Charles Seife, from the beginning, reifies zero: the author accepts the misconception that zero is some sort of actually existing mystical force resting at the center of black holes. He doesn't step back to take a look at the concept as concept. Nor does he appear to keep in mind that mathematics is the science of measurement, or that time is not a force or dimension, but merely a measurement of motion. This distorts his perspective, from which he attempts to refute Aristotle's refutation of the existence of the void: for Seife, zero exists and is a force in and of itself. In Seife's hands, zero certainly is a dangerous idea!Robert Kaplan, on the other hand, delves deeper. His work is informed by an obvious love for history and classic literature, and while this results in many obscure literary asides, one feels that this book takes part in the Great Conversation. As a result he steps back and takes a critical look at the true meaning and usefulness of the concept as a concept. Is zero a number? Is it noun, adjective, or verb? Does it actually exist outside of conceptual consciousness or is it exclusively a tool of the mind?Both authors follow zero's role in the development of algebra and the calculus. As a math "infant", this reader, having read Seife's book first, found that the explanations of these two developments by Kaplan cleared away the haze, which Seife's book was unable to do. I found both books to be illuminating. Seife's book contains much valuable historical information. He did his homework. If one were to read only this book on the subject, one would have learned a great deal about the history of mathematics. But if I were to have to choose one to recommend, it would be Kaplan's book. It is more informed, more seasoned, more honestly inductive in its approach.

Tour de force

Kaplan's book is a tour de force. Bridging philosophy, history and, oh yes, mathematics, he takes us through a romp of human intellectual history. He makes the argument, that zero, like death, is at the base of a culture's understanding of the world. At the beginning of the book's journey, such a claim would seem outlandish, but by the end, we have returned home throughly convinced and pleased to have made the trip. It is a pleasure to read a creative mind at play.

Quirky, informative, fun, and brilliant

I have no idea how anyone can even REMOTELY link this book to "Western supremancy," since it covers all cultures and periods with equal erudition and respect. The book is at once a philosophical meditation on the concept of zero, an engaging tour guide through the labyrinth of mathematics, an intimate (if highly abbreviated) biography of some of the foremost geniuses of our world, and a zestful and highly anecdotal history of the evolution of one branch of science. What's more, the writing is both sharp and lively (which is more than I can say about most popular-science titles). All in all, I'm very much impressed by this book.

Like Flaubert and Burroughs rolled into one

The Nothing That Is is the real Story of O. It combines the narrative thrust of Madame Bovary with the raw power of Naked Lunch. Kaplan is Flaubert and Bill Burroughs rolled into one, but without (I assume) the personality defects and the annoying French accent. One may be the loneliest number, but Kaplan convinces me that 0 is the most important, while giving us all pause about our Eurocentric notions as he demonstrates the brilliance of ancient nonwestern cultures in making one of the greatest discoveries of all time--up there with the western omelet, Capri pants, and the Swyng-O-Matic--the Nothing that most people believe isn't but which Kaplan shows us most certainly is. I've made this book the first--oops, I mean the zero'th--volume on my science shelf.
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