Non-fiction: “Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea” by Charles Seife

ZeroI picked up this book from the library because … well, I had a dream involving Kenneth Branaugh as a scientist and all of a sudden I wanted to write a short story involving a mathematician/scientist living in isolation in Oxford and look, I can’t explain where my mind goes, okay? But I wanted to do research, and this book seemed interesting; maybe it would talk about a famous scientist/mathematician that I could develop a story around, similar to The Wayward Muse, or The Scandal of the Season.

This truly is a biography of zero, as well as infinity. Seife takes us on a journey beginning with the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Babylonians and their quest to expand the science of mathematics without using zero, which causes problems:

… Multiplying a number by zero gives you zero. This troublesome number crushes the number line into a point.

Worst of all, if you wantonly divide by zero, you can destroy the entire foundation of logic and mathematics. Dividing by zero once – just one time – allows you to prove, mathematically, anything at all in the universe. You can prove that 1 + 1 = 42, and from there you can prove that J. Edgar Hoover was a space alien, that William Shakespeare came from Uzbekistan, or even that the sky is polka-dotted. [22-23]

The author handily encloses an appendix [A], which proves that Winston Churchill was a carrot.

After discussing the Pythagorean society (which, even while reading in my head, I still mispronounce – pith-a-gore-EE-an, rather than pith-a-GOR-an), it proceed rapidly through the Dark Ages and the Renaissance, drawing parallels between zero and struggles with the Church, innovations in science, even war.

As the story of zero progresses, so does the math. Seife does a fairly good job of explaining the math in easy-to-understand-even-for-Alaina terms, but once he hits the nineteenth century and hyperbolic geometry and imaginary numbers and other stuff I never learned in pre-calculus back in high school, he started to lose me. And really, I am probably not his audience – I’m a geek, but not a math nerd. I stopped watching Mathnet years ago, and even that stuff I never wholly understood.

Once the maths were all discovered, Seife then proceeded to confuse (and depress) me even more, by proceeding into physics, string theory, M-theory, and other things I only really know about because it’s Sheldon’s job on The Big Bang Theory.

Even for me, it was quite enlightening. For instance, I knew that there was a connection between the Fibonacci Sequence and the Golden Ratio, but no one really explained it to me in high school; just that it was there, now let’s watch Stand and Deliver some more (you think I’m joking, don’t you?). Seife finally explained the connection – the quotient of any consecutive numbers in the Sequence will be progressively closer and closer to the Golden Ratio number. THANK YOU, JEEBUS, I GET IT NOW! (No wonder I got a C+ on that project years ago.)

Final thoughts:
While Seife does a very good job illustrating tough concepts, I’m going to have to defer to my other mathematics genius, Donald Duck, for all my Mathemagic needs.

Also also: when Seife described the Doppler Effect, I immediately did the following: “Neeooow”. It makes more sense to watch this clip from The Big Bang Theory.

Yes, I am a geek.

Grade for Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea: 2 stars


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