Monday, May 20, 2013

"Zero"--a book review

This month's selection for my book club was Zero-the Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife. This is a nonfiction book that discusses the history of numbers and their place in society focusing on the ever important concept of zero and its partner infinity. Now if you're not a math person, don't stop reading yet. Seife has masters degrees in math and journalism and takes a seemingly dry subject and makes it a very interesting read. He starts in the beginning with the use of numbers to count things and goes to present day with string theory and such. 

First let me tell you what background knowledge I brought to the book, so you can put my perceptions in context. I had the basic science and math courses in college of physics, chemistry, and calculus. I didn't have any advanced courses in these areas. However, I am married to someone who reads math and physics books for fun, so if you can learn anything by osmosis, I should know a lot. I found the book an interesting read for several reasons.

I had never thought about the evolution of numbers and their use. I guess I just assumed that all of them had always been there, including zero. However, that was naive. They have evolved over time just as our scientific ideas have often hand in hand--which makes perfect sense if I'd ever taken time to think about it. Also, I had never thought about the beautiful or sinister (depending on your point of view) concepts of zero and infinity in a religious sense. There have been a lot of differing ideas of whether God created things from something or from nothing and whether there is a beginning and ending to the universe. Many men and societies survived or didn't depending on their views on this subject and what was politically correct at the time. Also, the book reads like a who's who of the big players throughout time in the science and math world. However, Seife does more than discuss their math contributions. He tells about the life they were living and how their work affected their life. It is very much a history book in all of these ways.

Zero is also a math book. As Seife describes each new concept as it was discovered, he gives very understandable examples of that concept in every day terms. He seems to have a real gift for this and I think his examples could be used in the classroom to make things clear and relevant to students.

Now after all of that praise, let me tell you the rest of the story. The book can be a quick and easy read. At least that was how it was for the math professor in our group. However, I found it a fast read if I didn't try to completely understand the examples or a tedious read when I was trying to understand them--especially toward the end when they were getting more complex.

What did the others think about Zero? Some commented that there may have been other sides to the story, especially in the religious context, than were presented by Seife. However, most of the other comments were favorable. They thought it was well written and the subject matter interesting. Out in the rest of the world, it has won awards and has gotten favorable reviews from most of the major newspapers.

Would I recommend the book? Yes, but I wouldn't call it a beach-read type book for the average person. I plan to read it again and savor all of the fascinating information it has to offer. (Especially when I have trouble sleeping.)

But wait, there's more:
In the latter parts of the book, it talks about many things that I have heard referenced on The Big Bang Theory. I now understand better what Sheldon and Leonard are often talking about.

But wait, there's even more:
If you want to know more details about the book, read here.