review of "Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea" (Charles Seife, 2000)
Here's a curious occurence. "The Indian name for zero is sunya, meaning "empty," which the Arabs turned into sifr. When some Western scholars described the new number to their colleagues, they turned sifr into a Latin-sounding word, yielding zephirus, which is the root of our word zero. Other Western mathematicians didn't change the word so heavily and called zero cifra, which became cipher." (p. 73). Now! - how coincidential or synchronicitous (you choose which) that the book about the Cipher is written by Seife?!
Phonological conspiracies aside, the book is a great read on several levels.
The level that didn't matter as much to me but might matter to you is the history of zero as a mathematical tool and its implication for physics and astrophysics.
The level that was of more interest to me was the interplay between zero as a philosophical concept (of void/nothingness, and as a 'twin' of infinity) with religion.
The level of discussion that is implicitly promised in the description of the book that, unfortunately, was - in my opinion - underdeveloped is the discussion of the Indian/Buddhist doctrine of Sunyata (from which the term zero stems - at least etymologically). It would have been of great interest to this reader-reviewer if Seife tracked the cultural trajectory of zero (as a concept) not only into the spheres of hard science but also into the studies of consciousness, phenomenology and spirituality. After all, the Eastern acceptance of zero as a math device - according to Seife himself - was not unrelated to zero's previous cultural "reincarnations" as a philosophical/cosmological/phenomenological tool. Seife comes very close to this phenomenological tangent when (on p. 76) he shares that the Hebrew term "ayin" stands for both "nothing" (a zero) and the pronoun "I." It would have been fascinating to see Seife expound on this item of Hebrew phenomenological terminology that equates Self with Nothingness (in parallel with the Hindu doctrine of Sunyata).
With this in mind, a reader looking to build bridges b/w mathematical nothingness and phenomenological nothingness (of Self) is likely to encounter a series of intriquing informational crumbs scattered throughout the book. As such, the book far better "services" the mathematical community rather than philosophical-spiritual-psychological one.
But this "imbalance" of coverage might - in and of itself - be the very story of zero. First there was Conceptual-Philosophical Zero, then Zero became Mathematical, then Zero became a Heretic, then Zero returned to the Mathematical Fold, and eventually became incorporated into Physics/Astrophysics - without ever looking back at its philosophical/phenomenological roots in human consciousness.
In sum, in my impression, Seife's story of the Zero is a fascinating story of a deconstruction of a construct of a Nothing... When talking about zero - it seems - it is hard to avoid circularity and tautology...
To a "buddhist" in training, here's a koan: what do you get when you divide something by nothing? when you divide by zero? (hint: infinity).
Pavel Somov, Ph.D.