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The Nothing That is: A Natural History of Zero Paperback – 1 Nov 2000

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Product details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press Inc; 1st PB Edition edition (Nov. 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195142373
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195142372
  • Product Dimensions: 19.7 x 1.6 x 12.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 836,832 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

"Get this book. Read it. Think long and hard and sweetly about what the human mind is for: The gift of thinking, the joy and fulfillment of searching for the truth."--Michael Pakenham, The Baltimore Sun
"An attempt to do for Zero what Dava Sobel did for Longitude.... Kaplan has a light touch.... The effect is of a knowledgeable uncle suddenly prompted on a summer's afternoon to tell you all he knows on his favorite subject."--Jeremy Gray, The Sunday Times
"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.... Mr. Kaplan, a popularizer of mathematics who has taught at Harvard, is an erudite and often witty writer."--Jim Holt, Wall Street Journal
"Robert Kaplan's The Nothing That Is is a magnificent meditation on the concept of zero, and, therefore, on everything. His passionate writing brings us to the Mayans, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Indians, the Arabs, and the early moderns as they worked towards, or from, an understanding of
zero. Reading Kaplan, we experience that striving, and its glory, for ourselves."--Barry Mazur, Professor of Mathematics, Harvard University
"It is hard to imagine that an entertaining, informative book could be written about nothing, but Robert Kaplan has done it brilliantly. Starting with the great invention of zero as a place holder, Kaplan takes you through the use of zero in algebra, and in calculus where equating a derivative to
zero magically calculates maxima and minima, to the importance of the null set. His book closes with that unthinkable question, Why is there something rather than nohting?' on which one cannot long meditate withoutfear of going mad."--Martin Gardner, former columnist for Scientific American and
author of Relativity Simply Explained



"Get this book. Read it. Think long and hard and sweetly about what the human mind is for: The gift of thinking, the joy and fulfillment of searching for the truth."--Michael Pakenham, The Baltimore Sun
"An attempt to do for Zero what Dava Sobel did for Longitude.... Kaplan has a light touch.... The effect is of a knowledgeable uncle suddenly prompted on a summer's afternoon to tell you all he knows on his favorite subject."--Jeremy Gray, The Sunday Times
"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.... Mr. Kaplan, a popularizer of mathematics who has taught at Harvard, is an erudite and often witty writer."--Jim Holt, Wall Street Journal
"Robert Kaplan's The Nothing That Is is a magnificent meditation on the concept of zero, and, therefore, on everything. His passionate writing brings us to the Mayans, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Indians, the Arabs, and the early moderns as they worked towards, or from, an understanding of
zero. Reading Kaplan, we experience that striving, and its glory, for ourselves."--Barry Mazur, Professor of Mathematics, Harvard University
"It is hard to imagine that an entertaining, informative book could be written about nothing, but Robert Kaplan has done it brilliantly. Starting with the great invention of zero as a place holder, Kaplan takes you through the use of zero in algebra, and in calculus where equating a derivative to
zero magically calculates maxima and minima, to the importance of the null set. His book closes with that unthinkable question, Why is there something rather than nohting?'on which one cannot long meditate without fear of going mad."--Martin Gardner, former columnist for Scientific American and
author of Relativity Simply Explained


"Get this book. Read it. Think long and hard and sweetly about what the human mind is for: The gift of thinking, the joy and fulfillment of searching for the truth."--Michael Pakenham, The Baltimore Sun
"An attempt to do for Zero what Dava Sobel did for Longitude.... Kaplan has a light touch.... The effect is of a knowledgeable uncle suddenly prompted on a summer's afternoon to tell you all he knows on his favorite subject."--Jeremy Gray, The Sunday Times
"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.... Mr. Kaplan, a popularizer of mathematics who has taught at Harvard, is an erudite and often witty writer."--Jim Holt, Wall Street Journal
"Robert Kaplan's The Nothing That Is is a magnificent meditation on the concept of zero, and, therefore, on everything. His passionate writing brings us to the Mayans, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Indians, the Arabs, and the early moderns as they worked towards, or from, an understanding of zero. Reading Kaplan, we experience that striving, and its glory, for ourselves."--Barry Mazur, Professor of Mathematics, Harvard University
"It is hard to imagine that an entertaining, informative book could be written about nothing, but Robert Kaplan has done it brilliantly. Starting with the great invention of zero as a place holder, Kaplan takes you through the use of zero in algebra, and in calculus where equating a derivative to zero magically calculates maxima and minima, to the importance of the null set. His book closes with that unthinkable question, Why is there something rather than nohting?' on which one cannot long meditate withoutfear of going mad."--Martin Gardner, former columnist for Scientific American and author of Relativity Simply Explained



"Get this book. Read it. Think long and hard and sweetly about what the human mind is for: The gift of thinking, the joy and fulfillment of searching for the truth."--Michael Pakenham, The Baltimore Sun
"An attempt to do for Zero what Dava Sobel did for Longitude.... Kaplan has a light touch.... The effect is of a knowledgeable uncle suddenly prompted on a summer's afternoon to tell you all he knows on his favorite subject."--Jeremy Gray, The Sunday Times
"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.... Mr. Kaplan, a popularizer of mathematics who has taught at Harvard, is an erudite and often witty writer."--Jim Holt, Wall Street Journal
"Robert Kaplan's The Nothing That Is is a magnificent meditation on the concept of zero, and, therefore, on everything. His passionate writing brings us to the Mayans, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Indians, the Arabs, and the early moderns


"For my money, the best popular mathematics book ever written."--Margaret Wertheim, Los Angeles Times Book Review


"Get this book. Read it. Think long and hard and sweetly about what the human mind is for: The gift of thinking, the joy and fulfillment of searching for the truth."--Michael Pakenham, The Baltimore Sun


"Deeply informed, lucidly written, this engaging work is a thought-provoking inquiry into a significant topic in the history of human thought."--Frederick Pratter, Christian Science Monitor


"Elegant, discursive, and littered with quotes and allusions from Aquinas via Gershwin to Woolf.... A book that will give a lot of readers pleasure and inform them, by stealth, at the same time. A fine holiday present for any mathematically inclined friend or relative."--Ian Stewart, The Times (London)


"Philosophy, poetry, astronomy, linguistics--readers will marvel at what Kaplan draws out of nothing.... Written in a wonderfully eclectic and unpredictable style.... Kaplan leavens his mathematics with piquant illustrations and lively humor, thus extending his audience even to readers generally indifferent to numbers."--Booklist


"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.... Kaplan, a popularizer of mathematics who has taught at Harvard, is an erudite and often witty writer."--Jim Holt, Wall Street Journal


"It is a true delight to read Robert Kaplan's The Nothing That Is. Full of remarkable historical facts about zero, it is both illuminating and entertaining, touching deeper issues of mathematics and philosophy in a very accessible way."--Sir Roger Penrose, Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, and the author of The Emperor's New Mind


"An attempt to do for Zero what Dava Sobel did for Longitude.... Kaplan has a light touch.... The effect is of a knowledgeable uncle suddenly prompted on a summer's afternoon to tell you all he knows on his favorite subject."--Jeremy Gray, The Sunday Times


"It is hard to imagine that an entertaining, informative book could be written about nothing, but Robert Kaplan has done it brilliantly. Starting with the great invention of zero as a place holder, Kaplan takes you through the use of zero in algebra, and in calculus where equating a derivative to zero magically calculates maxima and minima, to the importance of the null set. His book closes with that unthinkable question, Why is there something rather than nohting?' on which one cannot long meditate without fear of going mad."--Martin Gardner, former columnist for Scientific American and author of Relativity Simply Explained


About the Author


Robert Kaplan has taught mathematics to people from six to sixty, most recently at Harvard University. In 1994, with his wife Ellen, he founded The Math Circle, a program, open to the public, for the enjoyment of pure mathematics. He has also taught Philosophy, Greek, German, Sanskrit, and Inspired Guessing. Robert Kaplan lives in Cambridge, MA.


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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I was given this - I wouldn't have bothered to read it otherwise.

It's more a history book than a maths book, so if you're a studying or practising mathematician this won't be much help as such.

What it does do is provide a complete history of mankind's mental and emotional battle to get its collective head round the concept of admitting to the existence of zero. Full of "well, would you believe that!" moments.

The thing that raises it from 3 stars to 4 is the bit at the end where the books discusses the question "What's zero to the power of zero?"

Worth getting for that bit alone.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0x87612d98) out of 5 stars 58 reviews
96 of 98 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9207642c) out of 5 stars The story of Zero 19 Jun. 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Two books discuss the concept of zero. They are "The nothing that Is: A Natural History of Zero" by Robert Kaplan (1999) and "Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea" by Charles Seiff (2000). The books tackle the same subject but are significantly different in their approach.
Both books recognize the difficulties zero caused to the Greeks and their successors. Kaplan emphasizes the mysticism of zero. His book describes the confusion and avoidance of "nothing" throughout civilized history. While there is a smattering of mathematical concepts, the book is mostly an essay revolving about nihilism. This seems somewhat strange as Robert Kaplan has "taught mathematics to people from six to sixty. He is the co-founder of The Math Circle, a program open to the public for the enjoyment of pure mathematics."
Seiff's story also includes descriptions of mankind's concern over "nothing" but emphasizes the solutions reached by mathematicians. The book is full of mathematical and physical concepts related to zero.
If one is interested in philosophy, read Kaplan. If Math is the desired area, read Seiff.
82 of 86 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x875f6fd0) out of 5 stars Well Reasoned - A Great Read 16 Jun. 2000
By Alleyne - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I've recently read both Charles Seife's "Zero:The Biography of a Dangerous Idea" and Robert Kaplan's "The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero." They are at the same time very similar and very different. They each follow an almost identical line, presenting the evolution of zero chronologically, and they each make almost identical stops along the way. The difference is in how they treat the steps in zero's evolution which is conditioned by their differing metaphysical views. An illuminating example is how they each treat Aristotle's role in zero's history.
Charles Seife, from the beginning, reifies zero: the author accepts the misconception that zero is some sort of actually existing mystical force resting at the center of black holes. He doesn't step back to take a look at the concept as concept. Nor does he appear to keep in mind that mathematics is the science of measurement, or that time is not a force or dimension, but merely a measurement of motion. This distorts his perspective, from which he attempts to refute Aristotle's refutation of the existence of the void: for Seife, zero exists and is a force in and of itself. In Seife's hands, zero certainly is a dangerous idea!
Robert Kaplan, on the other hand, delves deeper. His work is informed by an obvious love for history and classic literature, and while this results in many obscure literary asides, one feels that this book takes part in the Great Conversation. As a result he steps back and takes a critical look at the true meaning and usefulness of the concept as a concept. Is zero a number? Is it noun, adjective, or verb? Does it actually exist outside of conceptual consciousness or is it exclusively a tool of the mind?
Both authors follow zero's role in the development of algebra and the calculus. As a math "infant", this reader, having read Seife's book first, found that the explanations of these two developments by Kaplan cleared away the haze, which Seife's book was unable to do. I found both books to be illuminating. Seife's book contains much valuable historical information. He did his homework. If one were to read only this book on the subject, one would have learned a great deal about the history of mathematics. But if I were to have to choose one to recommend, it would be Kaplan's book. It is more informed, more seasoned, more honestly inductive in its approach.
76 of 89 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8765bb64) out of 5 stars get Seife's book instead 5 May 2005
By Caraculiambro - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
If for some reason you're jonesin' to read a history of the number zero, I would hie thee away from this book. Read instead Charles Seife's peerless "Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea," a very similar book (published around the same time, too) that is much more interesting and far more competently written.

Kaplan's book, while not atrocious, is nevertheless poorly brought off and demands a much stronger math background to enjoy -- despite what the blurb on the cover says.

I will admit, though, that, in addition to being a capable mathematician and scholar, Kaplan has organized and researched his tale well. Fatally, however, the guy can't seem to write in a natural, lucid way.

Here's a sample of the kind of opaque, gummy prose you're in store for if you tackle this book [p. 144]:

"Only selective forgetting of the past lets us move on, taking what was once dubious as the most banal of certainties, what was gained through struggle as our birthright. So with zero. The sermons it spoke in place-holding shrank to a letter of our thinking's alphabet, its volumes on solving equations to a sentence in mathematical primers."

And this is quite typical. Trust me: Seife is much more engaging, useful, and memorable. His book is considerably shorter than Kaplan's, however.
28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x87482864) out of 5 stars Quirky, informative, fun, and brilliant 20 Oct. 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I have no idea how anyone can even REMOTELY link this book to "Western supremancy," since it covers all cultures and periods with equal erudition and respect. The book is at once a philosophical meditation on the concept of zero, an engaging tour guide through the labyrinth of mathematics, an intimate (if highly abbreviated) biography of some of the foremost geniuses of our world, and a zestful and highly anecdotal history of the evolution of one branch of science. What's more, the writing is both sharp and lively (which is more than I can say about most popular-science titles). All in all, I'm very much impressed by this book.
58 of 69 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x87710348) out of 5 stars Tour de force 29 Nov. 1999
By Jim - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Kaplan's book is a tour de force. Bridging philosophy, history and, oh yes, mathematics, he takes us through a romp of human intellectual history. He makes the argument, that zero, like death, is at the base of a culture's understanding of the world. At the beginning of the book's journey, such a claim would seem outlandish, but by the end, we have returned home throughly convinced and pleased to have made the trip. It is a pleasure to read a creative mind at play.
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