Opening with prehistoric humanity's first attempts at counting livestock and closing with contemporary efforts to quantity whether the universe is expanding or contracting, science writer Charles Seife's Zero covers nothing less than the entire history of mathematics, boiled down to about 200 pages. Seife focuses on the twin enemies of calculation, zero and infinity, and the arc of his story is sublime. First the Greeks and then the Helleniphilic early Christians rejected the concept of zero as impractical—who needs to count zero objects?—and possibly demonic. Pythagorean cults and Papal edicts sought to keep zero a secret, which led to such oddities as our current calendar, which, in lacking a Year Zero, has led to massive confusion about when centuries and millennia really turn. It took the Hindus, with a deity that literally is a void, to show how practical zero is for quick figuring and generating numbers that properly describe curves. What's fascinating about Zero is Seife's description of the literally religious fervor with which societies clung to demonstrably incorrect methods of understanding the universe, all of which leads to the question of what might supercede current scientific gospel. After all, the concept of infinity (which naturally follows on the heels of zero) has led to much mathematical patchwork to keep the art of physics from becoming a mess. The paradox of mathematical development is that simple but unworkable systems have been replaced by workable but complicated systems, which means the mechanics of the universe have become, once again, a matter of faith, except to those in academia. Seife notes this irony in passing but doesn't dwell on it, possibly because decades of personal study have made the numbers add up for him. If there's a failing here, it's that in its closing chapters, the book shifts from easily understood anecdotal history to hardcore calculation, and readers who stalled out after high-school trig may grasp only the gist of the story instead of the detail. But, like the best popular-science texts, Zero is gratifying, in a mind-bending sort of way. The book takes its readers so far inside their own heads that they may question whether numbers can properly describe anything at all

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