Skip to main content

Finding Zero - Amir Aczel ****

There's nothing publishers like more than authors talking about themselves, because they think it connects them to their audience. I must admit, when it's, say, a physicist talking about their feelings about their latest discoveries, or how they travelled to yet another conference in a gorgeous location at taxpayers' expense, it makes me want to throw the book away. However there are some writers who have a genuinely interesting story to tell, and that's definitely the case with Amir Aczel's Finding Zero, a sort of 'India Jones does maths'.

There are two particularly excellent bits - the opening section, which describes the young Amir's introduction to mathematics in his highly unusual upbringing often on a cruise ship (his father was the captain), where one of the stewards (who had a sideline in smuggling) looked after him, and as a mathematician, enticed the boy into the wonders and history of mathematics. Then, later on, the latter half of the book is an attempt to find the oldest known example of zero, which disappeared many years ago, a quest that has as many ups and down as any Hollywood tale.

Although I do love the personal storytelling part, I would have liked a bit more mathematical content, but when we do get it, there's some interesting stuff about the different early number systems and the origin on the characters we use to represent numerals, which seem to have come from India, but the route and the exact sources are still not clearly known.

I do have a couple of problems with the book. The big issue is that Aczel indulges in the same kind of woffly linking of Eastern philosophy and religion to scientific contents as the unfortunate Tao of Physics. The technique is to find something in ancient writing that bears a vague resemblance to modern science or maths and suggest that the ancients understood something that they clearly didn't. (This is nothing new - in medieval times it was common to think that ancient civilisations had much exotic knowledge that has since been lost.) This will put some readers off - but if you can get past it, there is much that is worth reading.

The other problem is that in trying to fight back against the early 20th century tendency to play down anything that came from the East, Aczel goes too far the other way, commenting, for instance, 'The three religions [Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism] together give us concepts that did not arrive in the West until much later, in the late middle Ages. These concepts are zero, infinity and finite but extremely large numbers.' My issue with that is that infinity was discussed in the West since the Ancient Greeks (Aristotle, for instance, spent some considerable time on it) and you can't do better on finite but large numbers than Archimedes' magnificent Sand Reckoner, where he calculates how many grains of sand it would take to fill the universe. (To his credit, when I mentioned this to Aczel he broadly agrees with the criticism.)

What is impressive, though, is the central core of the book, the search for zero. It's not only a case of hunting for the oldest known written zero, Aczel makes a convincing argument that there is something about the Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, that make it easier to conceive the concept of emptiness, or the void, as a worthwhile concept. It doesn't seem unreasonable that this viewpoint was behind the development of that incredibly useful mathematical widget, the zero.

So, a bit of a mixed bag, but well worth overcoming a negative reaction (should you have one) to waffly Eastern philosophy bits to get to the valuable insights into the early history of mathematics.


Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …