In this text, Robert Kaplan explores the peculiar course that the notion of "nothing" or its mathematical representative, zero, has taken throughout history. Forced into our awareness 4000 years ago by the need to count ever larger multitudes, zero drifted in and out of focus, disappeared for centuries, then swept from the East into the medieval world, with fears and superstitions crouched around it. Did we discover or invent it? Was it the devil's work? Is it a number or a fiction? Its users came to see that it held immense power to unriddle the universe, leading to profound insights into the mind and the world. And now new layers are coming to light: our computers speak only in zeros and ones, and, for a cosmologist, zero alone can be made to generate everything.
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On the face of it, the chances of a book about zero offering mind-stretching entertainment would seem to be about, well, zero. But in The Nothing That Is, Harvard University mathematician Robert Kaplan shows that there's a lot more to zero than meets the eye.
Unlike the so-called natural numbers like one, two, three and so on, the origins of zero are incredibly hard to pin down. Humans seem to have done quite well without nothing for tens of thousands of years: not even the Greeks, the master mathematicians of the Ancient World, had a symbol for zero. Or did they? Among the many delights of this book is the way Kaplan reveals the twists and turns in the story of the origin of the symbol for zero and his own suggested resolution of the mystery.
The struggle to do things with zero, such as divide it into other numbers, or use it as the ultimate fine-divider of other numbers--the key idea in the calculus--are brought alive by Kaplan, though without ever resorting to more than simple school algebra. His writing style does sometimes stray beyond the literary and into the florid but overall this compact little essay of history, mystery and maths should give you entertainment and mental stimulation in equal measure. --Robert MatthewsFrom the Publisher:
Acclaim for The Nothing That Is
" This is an elegant little book. It gets you thinking (why doesn't 0/0 make sense? What is 1 raised to the power 0?) This is a book that will give a lot of readers pleasure and inform them, by stealth, at the same time. A fine Christmas present for any mathematically inclined friend or relative."
Thursday 30th September 1999
"So where did the familiar hollow circle that we use to denote zero come from? That's a story fraught with mystery, and Mr Kaplan tells it well, blending rival historical accounts with his own conjectures. Mr Kaplan is an erudite and often witty writer"
Wall Street Journal
Wednesday 10th November 1999
"Kaplan's tale of nothing is...an attempt to do for Zero what Dava Sobel did for Longitude. The effect is of a knowledgeable uncle suddenly prompted on a summer's afternoon to tell you all he knows on his favourite subject. There are digressions, all manner of literary allusions, enough erudition to prevent him inclining to one theory at the expense of another. Divided up among several speakers, the result would be the most congenial conversation. It seems that a significant piece of our mental universe comes from the number zero, after all."
The Sunday Times
Sunday 24th October 1999
"Robert Kaplan's The Nothing That Is: a natural history of zero - you'll wonder how we ever managed without it."
Saturday 27th November 1999
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Book Description Penguin Books Ltd, 2000. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 0140279431