Great Lakes Geek Book Review

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea
by Charles Seife

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea tells the story of this amazing number and the problems and paradoxes it led to. In my mathematical career I was more concerned with infinity, zero's counterpart, but in reality the two concepts are inextricably paired.

This book gives an overview of how numbers and mathematics began. Counting items and basic trade evolved into physics, astronomy and other endeavors that required more sophisticated mathematics.

Zero was avoided by many cultures because it led to results which the mind just could not grasp. What do you mean the swift Achilles could never catch the slow tortoise? How can you say that an arrow will never arrive after being shot from a bow when we can witness it reaching its destination? Zeno's Paradoxes and others were just part of the problem with zero, and its twin, infinity.

The author credits the Babylonians with inventing zero. The Greeks were aware of it but the strange results it led to made some of them not only deny its existence but to ban it. The powers that be, including the Church, all weighed in on zero.

Of course the Calculus could not exist without limits and zero and infinity are requirements. But when it is proven that there are different levels of infinity (aleph null, aleph one, etc) the human mind has difficulty.

This book is not intended for mathematicians except to refresh ideas from old college courses. It is an interesting read for those interested in science, history, culture philosophy and even religion.

Great Lakes Geek Rating:4 out of 5 pocket protectors.

Reviewed by Entreprenerd Dan Hanson, the Great Lakes Geek

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