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The Nothing That is: A Natural History of Zero [Hardcover]

Robert Kaplan
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)

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Book Description

7 Oct 1999
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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Product details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Allen Lane; 2 edition (7 Oct 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0713992840
  • ISBN-13: 978-0713992847
  • Product Dimensions: 20.1 x 13 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 579,614 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

Amazon Review

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 Matthews

From 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."
The Times
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."
The Independent
Saturday 27th November 1999


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
Maths can be a difficult subject to understand, even when presented in clear and simple language. This book constantly distracts the readers attention with flowery and unnecessary prose. The really annoying thing is that having read some sentences a number of times you realise that behind the verbosity, Kaplan is actually saying something very mundane. An example:
"But when it comes to the pedestrian matter of dating such stories or tracing their antecedants, we must give it up. An attitude more poetic than ours toward when events occured, and toward the events themselves, makes hazy chronicles of these distant times"
Could easily have been written as:
"The passage of time makes it impossible to know how reliable such stories are."
There are many fine books which make mathematics accessible to the casual reader. This book is not one of them.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Kaplan must be a botanist 14 Sep 2001
Format:Paperback
I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments of those who thought this book was far too flowery. There were a lot of interesting parts to it and I found the historical passages rather informative; but when he starts introducing ludicrously overblown paragraphs which you just wade and wade through without finding out why he wrote them, it gets rather tedious.
If this book had been a little shorter, it would have been much better.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A book about nothing 19 May 2001
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
You don't have to know anything about mathematics to enjoy this book but just a lot about everything else. It is filled with expressions such as "While Hengel watched Spirit lifting away from Substance the Pantheists were seeking God in the old oak and rock" etc etc. In fact the book should be sentenced to an appearance in Private Eye's "Psued's Corner." However when Robert Kaplan deals with pure mathematics his style becomes very lucid indicating he is a teacher of great skill. A great pity he should embark on such a book on a subject that should be of great interest. More for fans of Melvyn Bragg than Richard Feynmann.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
I just want to add my voice to those who thought that this book was full of too much flowery language. If you have the time and patience to wade through the pseudo-intellectual claptrap there is some interesting information hidden in this book. Unfortunately I found it all too annoying.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Enlightening. 19 Mar 2011
Format:Hardcover
Having hated maths lessons at school,I was surprised to find myself drawn to,and buying,this book! I was even more surprised to find myself thoroughly enjoying,and ACTUALLY UNDERSTANDING,some quite advanced mathematical concepts.It was a revelation - making me realise that my struggle with maths at school was a result of poor teachers rather than my inability to understand.
On top of that,I will be eternally grateful to Mr.Kaplan for introducing me,through this book,to a novel that has subsequently become one of my all-time favourites; namely "The Third Policeman" by Flann O'Brien.It is a joy to be directed to other things that you can enjoy,and Robert Kaplan does this extremely well in "The Nothing That Is".
All in all a delightful surprise!The Third Policeman (Paladin Books)
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3.0 out of 5 stars Much Ado About Nothing 22 Aug 2010
By Dave_42
Format:Hardcover
"The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero" by Robert Kaplan is a look at what is perhaps the most significant creations and advances ever made in mathematics. Imagine trying to calculate using Roman Numerals or any system that did not have columns, and its significance doesn't end there as it is critical in dealing with negative numbers and calculus. Zero took a journey from indicating nothing, to being a number of value which then forced the creation of the idea of null to once again indicate nothing.

Kaplan's book looks at all the aspects of Zero, from what it meant, to the symbols used for it and where they might have come from, to its importance in mathematics and for that matter in philosophy. His note at the front of the book suggests that the reader need only have had high-school algebra and geometry, but to get the most out of this book it would be better to have had some higher math, as well as a full and well-rounded education as Kaplan makes references which hit on a number of areas.

The book itself almost defies being placed into a category. There are elements of history, philosophy, psychology, and of course math contained in its seventeen chapters (appropriately starting with chapter Zero). The first nine chapters have a great deal to do with the history of the number and the symbol used for it, and how it impacted Mesopotamia, Greece, India, and even a chapter on how it was perceived in Mayan culture.

The book then transitions from more of a history to more about how Zero is used in mathematics, covering issues such as what is the a number to the power of 0, and then by extension what is 0 to the power of 0. It also touches on Zero's important relative Infinity.
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