05 October 2008

Zero: the Biography of a Dangerous Idea

Zero: the Biography of a Dangerous Idea
Charles Seife (3/5 stars)
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics) (September 5, 2000)

In Zero: the Biography of a Dangerous Idea, Seife first gives the history of the zero, in mathematics and social history, as well as it's non-history (why it was rejected in some cultures). He explains the resistance of the Greeks to the idea of the zero, why the Catholic Church rejected the zero and also how it was used in much earlier societies. These first chapters are well worth reading, blending history, math and mathematical history in a fascinating tale.

From there, the author begins to blend the idea of zero with other "dangerous" mathematical ideas (including "infinity"), and with his intermingling of ideas he looses the persuasiveness of his argument. It's hard to follow and/or believe that "zero" did this or that, when the zero he is talking about isn't actually "zero". Confused? So was I. He seemed to loose his focus and clarity from around chapter 6 to the end.

There are some rather high mathematical principals and examples throughout the book, which were difficult for me (not the world's best mathematician) to follow, and Seife often assumes that if one is reading Zero, then one is a mathematician, not a layman. This occurred more often in the later chapters which were troublesome in other ways, so I might just not have been as willing to try to understand the math, as I was having a hard time understanding the author's arguments.

On the whole, Zero: the Biography of a Dangerous Idea felt like a thesis that was expounded out to be a full-length book. It would have been much better, in my opinion, if Seife had stopped at around chapter 5, the first chapters being where his knowledge, insight and humor shone through.

Read in September for both the Nonfiction Challenge and as "Z" for the A-Z Title Challenge.



Blogger alisonwonderland said...

i've got this on my to-read list because a math/computer friend is currently reading it. i appreciated your review!

11:47 PM  

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