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Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife

Jacket: Paperback
Pages: 256 pages
Publisher: Viking Adult
ISBN: 067088457X

Comments about the author:Before I wandered into science journalism, I was a mathematician. My undergraduate degree is from Princeton and I received an MS from the Yale mathematics department. My Erdös number is [at most] 5.

Review: This book is about the history of zero, from ancient times to modern concepts. It's quite interesting and encompasses a lot of mathematics and philosophy as well as a bit of physics.

Although the book reads well, is nicely documented, and extensively researched, the author has a style that I found aggravating; his frequent use of poetic hyperbole. This limits the book's value for someone unfamiliar with basic concepts in mathematics and physics.

I'm not sure why Seife choose this style. There seems to be a movement (hopefully short lived) among science writers to dress up science and mathematics in poetic, flowery language. Whatever the reason, science has good reason to use strict meanings for words and a disciplined approach to scientific concepts. When authors poetically use words in
technically incorrect ways they can make the prose pretty, but they often create confusion.

For example, Saif says "Zero and infinity are eternally locked in a struggle to engulf all the numbers. Like a Manichaean nightmare, the two sit on opposite poles of the number sphere, sucking numbers in like tiny black holes." [p. 145]

From a mathematical point of view this is pure gibberish. If one's intent is to educate others about mathematics, such poetic hyperbole is not only useless, but counter productive as well. For folks who don't already know a bit about mathematics, Seife's book is as likely to
confuse as to educate. For those who already understand the concepts, the poetry might be pleasing, but from an educational point of view the hyperbole found throughout this book is a definite stumbling block.

Another problem I had with this book is the way Seife misstates some key aspects in modern science. For example, on page 171 he asserts the classical definition of a vacuum: "The vacuum, by definition, has nothing in it - no particles, no light, nothing." He then describes the quantum mechanical view of the vacuum, and the zero-point energy. Part of this explanation includes a nice description of the Casimir effect [p. 172], which is a measurement of the literal existence of the "virtual" particles predicted by Quantum Mechanics. What these experiments show is that these "virtual" particles actually exist, and can be detected by the force they exert on closely spaced metal plates. This is actually a beautiful example of how science changed our concept of the vacuum. Classically, we thought of the vacuum as having "nothing in it," but Quantum Mechanics tells us that the classical vacuum cannot exist. But even after his nice explanation of the Casimir effect, Seife goes and spoils it with this absurd statement:

"Casimir realized that he had felt the force of nothing." [p. 172] "This is the force of the vacuum, a force produced by nothing at all. This is the Casimir effect."

It's as if someone asserted that the space around us has "nothing in it," and then rejoices when the wind touches his face, and runs off spouting "I've felt the force of nothing." What the Casimir effect teaches us is that what we thought was "nothing at all" really is something, and that calling them "virtual" particles is just as silly as early mathematicians who called the square root of negative numbers "imaginary."

There are other mistakes as well. For example, on page 178 he says: "The speed of light is the ultimate speed limit; you cannot reach it, much less exceed it. Nature has defended itself from an unruly zero." But this simply isn't true. Even a casual reader knows that the statement "you cannot reach it" is wrong. After all, photons travel at the speed of light all the time. Furthermore, scientists have known for years that, given the right materials, both the phase velocity and the group velocity of light can exceed the speed of light in a vacuum. All this is consistent within the framework of relativity, but Seife's hyperbole is likely to mislead the novice. Indeed, recent experiments showing these phenomena have resulted in all sorts of pundits on the Internet claiming that relativity had been falsified.

By getting all wound up with poetic hyperbole about nature "[defending] itself from an unruly zero" the author has, I fear, unwittingly contributed to the confusion of non-scientists about the science of relativity.

I don't mean to give the impression that this is a bad book. I actually found most of it readable and pleasant. I enjoyed the historical aspects and appreciated how the author illustrates the influence of  philosophy, and especially religion, in either advancing or retarding cultural acceptance of the concept of zero. I thought he did a particularly nice job of explaining the development of the calculus, and how the concept of zero played its part. As usual, the primary
distractions were related to his use of poetic hyperbole, as well as careless analogies. For example, on page 126 he writes: ". using calculus was as much an act of faith as declaring a belief in god."

This absurd statement was almost certainly made without thinking. After all, even though early mathematicians could not explain why the calculus worked - at least not with rigorous logic - they could demonstrate that it *did* work. Furthermore, anyone could use it. A person didn't have to believe in calculus or work themselves into an emotional frenzy to calculate the volume of a sphere. The same cannot, of course, be said of god.

This could have been a really great book. The subject matter and story of zero are fascinating. Unfortunately, Seife uses too many analogies that are either poor, extreme, or misleading. And his persistent tendency toward exaggeration was a real distraction for me. For these reasons I'd not recommend the book to someone not already somewhat knowledgeable about mathematics and physics - I think it would be too confusing. For those who can read between the lines of poetic hyperbole, though, I think the book is worthwhile.

— Reviewed by:
Duwayne Anderson Duwayne Anderson

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