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Zero summary

Charles Seife

The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

4.4 (332 ratings)
22 mins

Brief summary

Zero by Charles Seife is a fascinating exploration of the concept of 'zero,' its history, and its profound impact on mathematics, science, and human understanding.
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    Zero didn’t exist in the earliest days of math; it first emerged in ancient Babylonia.

    Can you imagine a world with zero numbers?

    Back in the Stone Age, that was how things were – until some enterprising cavepeople started carving notches onto a wolf bone.

    What were they counting? We don’t know. But it must have been something practical, like animals or spearheads. Because prehistoric math was strictly functional, there was no need for the concept of zero. They didn’t need a special word for “zero” deer; there just . . . weren’t any deer.

    But, over time, math advanced, and people developed complex counting systems. And the ancient Babylonians eventually realized that something – or rather, nothing – was missing.

    This is the key message: Zero didn’t exist in the earliest days of math; it first emerged in ancient Babylonia.

    To understand why zero first appeared, you’re going to need to know how the ancient Babylonian counting system worked. So, here’s a quick breakdown.

    You probably know that our modern counting system is decimal, or in base 10: we group things into 1s, 10s and 100s. But back in ancient Babylonia, the system was sexagesimal – it was in base 60. And get this: it had just two symbols.

    Those two symbols represented “1” and “10.” The Babylonians just repeated those symbols however many times they needed – much like in the later, better known Roman system. Fifty, for instance, would be five times the “10” symbol; fifty-one would be the same plus a “1” symbol – and so on, until you got to 60.

    Here’s the confusing bit: at 60, they’d just start again with the “1” symbol. Sixty and 1 were represented by the same symbol. And so was 60 times 60, or 3,600.

    If you’re thinking that sounds ambiguous, you’re right. But it was especially ambiguous when it came to numbers like 61 and 3,601. Those were both represented simply by two “1” symbols, side by side. So how could you tell the difference between them?

    Eventually, the Babylonians found a solution: zero. To write 3,601, they wrote a totally new symbol in between the two “1” symbols; this made clear that the first number wasn’t 60, but a degree higher up. This was the birth of zero.

    But this still wasn’t quite our modern-day zero. Really, it was just a placeholder denoting an absence. It was only later on that the strange, mystical properties of zero would become fully apparent – to the amazement, and horror, of the ancient Greeks.

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    What is Zero about?

    Zero (2000) is the fascinating story of a number banned by the ancient Greeks and worshipped by ancient Indians. Zero – as well as its twin, infinity – is a number that’s been at the heart of both mathematics and philosophy over the centuries.

    Zero Review

    Zero (2000) delves into the world of mathematics, science, and history to uncover the significance of 'zero.' Reasons to read this book:

    • It offers a unique perspective on the development of human knowledge and understanding.
    • The book combines history, philosophy, and science in an engaging and accessible manner.
    • Readers will gain a newfound appreciation for the power of zero and its influence on our world.

    Expand your horizons by reading Zero and uncover the mysteries behind this intriguing concept.

    Who should read Zero?

    • Popular science enthusiasts
    • History buffs curious about how concepts have evolved over time
    • Philosophers interested in everything . . . and nothing

    About the Author

    Charles Seife is a journalist and author who teaches at New York University. He studied mathematics at Princeton and Yale, and his other books include Proofiness, Alpha & Omega, and Decoding the Universe.

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    Zero FAQs 

    What is the main message of Zero?

    The main message of Zero is the exploration of the concept of 'zero,' its history, and its profound impact on human understanding.

    How long does it take to read Zero?

    It takes approximately 5-7 hours to read Zero. The Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Zero a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Zero is an enlightening read that offers a unique perspective on mathematics, science, and history.

    Who is the author of Zero?

    The author of Zero is Charles Seife.

    How many chapters are in Zero?

    Zero by Charles Seife has 10 chapters. The chapters are

    1. Nothing Ventured
    2. Nothing Gained
    3. Nothing Comes of Nothing
    4. Nothing Is Too Wonderful to Be True
    5. Nothing Is Certain
    6. Nothing Is Impossible
    7. Nothing Is Sacred
    8. Nothing Is Real
    9. Nothing Is Forever, and
    10. Nothing Is as Powerful as Zero.

    How many pages are in Zero?

    There are 248 pages in Zero.

    When was Zero published?

    Zero was published in 2000.

    What to read after Zero?

    If you're wondering what to read next after Zero, here are some recommendations we suggest:
    • The Book of Why by Judea Pearl and Dana MacKenzie
    • When Einstein Walked with Gödel by Jim Holt
    • The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch
    • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
    • Light by Bruce Watson
    • How to Walk into a Room by Emily P. Freeman
    • In Pursuit of the Unknown by Ian Stewart
    • The Big Picture by Sean Carroll
    • Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard
    • The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith