Review: Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife

For a book about nothing, Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea sure is something. 

“The clashes over zero were the battles that shook the foundations of philosophy, of science, of mathematics, and of religion,” says Seife, who then goes on to explore those conflicts. In just under 250 pages, he covers a lot of ground.

While philosophy and math might seem like esoteric stuff custom-built for brainy left-brain people, Seife writes in a reader-friendly style that makes complex ideas relatable to a general audience without dumbing down the ideas or speaking down to the readers. About two-thirds of the way through the book, Seife gets into reflective geometry, and at that point he gets in a little too deep, but otherwise, Seife manages to avoid bogging down in the heavy-duty ideas.

Considering that zero may be the heaviest of all heavy-duty ideas, that says a lot. “[F]or zero is different from the other numbers. It provides a glimpse of the ineffable and the infinite,” Seife says. “Zero is powerful because it’s infinity’s twin. They are equal and opposite, yin and yang. They are equally paradoxical and troubling.”

For that reason, Seife says, zero and infinity are eternally locked in a struggle to engulf all the numbers. “[T]he two sit on opposite poles of the number sphere, sucking numbers in like tiny black holes,” he says.

Even math-phobes will find this stuff fascinating—and, like Seife, they may even appreciate zero’s anti-establishment attitude. “A lone zero always misbehaves,” Seife says. “At the very least it does not behave the way other numbers do.”

As an example, Seife cites 1+1=2. “Add a number to itself and it changes,” he points out. Not so with zero.

And while that seems like obvious stuff, it’s anything but simple. Indeed, the implications are enormous. “Multiplying by zero collapses the number line. But dividing by zero destroys the entire framework of mathematics,” Seife says, later adding that “[z]ero is so powerful because it unhinges the laws of physics.”

Lil’ ol’ zero, destroying the framework of mathematics and unhinging the laws of physics. Oh yeah.

Seife has a droll sense of humor that he sprinkles throughout. For instance, when he uses a practical example to illustrate a fundamental problem about the way philosophers used to talk about zero, he writes: “Instead of ‘We have zero bananas,’ the grocer says ‘We have no bananas.’” It’s easy to hear Louis Prima’s old standard start up in the background.

It’s obvious Seife loves this stuff, and his enthusiasm shines through. With that kind of excitement serving as the engine that drives the book, it’s hard not to find the subject matter fascinating. Zero is one great biography.

5 replies »

  1. Neat. May have to check this one out.

    There came a point in my undergrad engineering studies where I and my fellow engineers were running into all sorts of equations that reduced to 0/0 or ∞/∞, both of which are undefined. That’s when we learned the technique to figure out which “0” was “smaller” and which “∞” was “bigger” in order to solve the equation. It was mind-bending stuff at the time, but I’ve used it so much since that it seems pretty ordinary now. It took a book review to remind me that it really isn’t.


  2. The coolest thing about the book, I think, is that Seife thinks math is neat and amazing, and his sense of wonder about it comes through on every page. He’s like that little kid who has a cool toy and keeps saying to his parents, “Look! Look! Look! Look at this! Isn’t this cool?”