Dr. Fred Bortz

Review of Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

by Charles Seife

(Viking, $24.95, 248 pages, February 200o)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

Return to Science Shelf Home Page

Note: Except where noted, all materials on this site are the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz. Individuals may print single copies of reviews or columns for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies of any of the materials on this site, please contact the author by e-mail.

Charles Seife's new (2003) book Alpha and Omega: The Search for the beginning and End of the Universe is also reviewed on this site.

A mathematician named Seife
Takes us all through numerical strife.
Though our interest is caught,
It all comes to naught
In this infinitesimal life.

To those of us living in this final year of the second millennium (2000), zero is an obvious notion. It is the placeholder that allows us to distinguish among the numerical representations of the second, 20th and 200th years of the first millennium and the present date on our calendars. Yet, says science journalist Charles Seife in this lively and intriguing "biography," few ideas in the history of civilization have been as fertile - and dangerous and controversial - as zero.

Readers may quibble with Mr. Seife about the beginning of the millennium (and with this reviewer who intends to celebrate the event next year when the crowds are smaller and the prices lower), but that's hardly an issue worth going to war over, is it? People would have to be irrational to argue as vehemently about zero (and the existence of negative, imaginary and irrational numbers) as they do about, say, religious beliefs.

Yet religion is where the controversy began, says Mr. Seife in his "Chapter 0, Null and Void." Zero, he writes, "has always defeated those who opposed it. Humanity could never force zero to fit its philosophies. Instead, zero shaped humanity's view of the universe - and of God."

Much of zero's power comes from its inseparable mathematical companion, infinity. Both the void and the infinite troubled Aristotle. Aristotelians declared that the cosmos was a finite number of concentric crystal spheres, rotating smoothly and steadily around a common axis through the center of the Earth and set into perpetual motion by a divine prime mover.

Though this philosophy contradicted the biblical account of creation of a limitless universe from nothingness, the Catholic Church accepted it as a proof of the existence of God. When threatened by the Islamic East, the church dug in its Aristotelian heels. It rejected Arabic numerals and the mathematics of zero. The result in Europe, says Mr. Seife, was the Dark Ages.

Eventually, he notes, the power of zero broke through, and Western mathematics, science and technology bloomed. His narrative then shifts smoothly from history and philosophy to science and technology, and his prose displays a gift for making complex ideas clear. Readers will appreciate the powerful techniques of calculus. They will understand the successes and limitations of general relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory. In the end (a chapter with its number 8 turned on its side to represent infinity), they may well share Mr. Seife's vision of "Zero's Final Victory."

Children's science author, Ph.D. physicist, and prize-winning limerician Fred Bortz's book To the Young Scientist: Reflections on Doing and Living Science includes in-their-own-words portraits of many successful scientists with original limericks for each one. Buy or borrow the book to discover what rhymes with "iridium."