Yeah, everyone's a superhero.
Have you ever been at a party, or maybe on a subway platform, and someone's talking to you, and you can't hear a word the person is saying, but you don't want to ask the person to talk louder, maybe because you already have or maybe because you're not that interested and just want the conversation over, so instead you just kind of half-smile and try to look vaguely interested, although not too intense, in case that might prompt the speaker to go on longer? You know what I mean, right? Okay, well, that's how I probably looked almost the entire time I was reading Charles Seife's Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea.
(And if you think that my admitted puzzlement means this is going to be short, well, you're right. Okay, short by my standards...)
The book is, as you can guess from the title, the story of how something we take for granted, a zero, came to be. For a long time people didn't need zeroes--first off, it was a while before civilizations even began to count (there are even still some groups who only have words for "one" or "many"). Once they did, they stuck to numbers that fit what they could tick off on their hadns and feet. They had no need for a zero because if something was nothing, then why represent it? Of course, as people began to count larger numbers, the systems they had of repeating symbols became pretty unwieldy (check out those long strings of Roman numerals). Eventually Eastern mathematicians began to put in placeholder characters that eventually evolved into zeros.
In the west, though, the concept of a zero was troublesome. It was one thing to be a placeholder, but putting it on a number line and showing it to be less than one, in fact nothing, offended first the Greeks and then the early Christians (which was quite a feat, as those were two groups who didn't have a lot of use for each other). Zero represented two threatening ideas: infinity and void. A void was a fearsome concept--it meant chaos and darkness, the world before the creation of man. The Greeks, led first by Pythagoras, then Aristotle, refused to accept that there was nothing, a void. For Pythagoras, zero was a problem because it didn't behave like other numbers. When you add zero to something, the number doesn't change. When you square a zero, you still get a zero. You can't divide with zero. A zero has its own rules and powers. It's something of a trickster. Pythagoras, who was fond of perfect ratios and proportions, just could not deal. No zeros for the Greeks!
For Aristotle, it all came down to astronomy. Aristotle envisioned the universe as earth centered, with all the visible heavenly bodies moving around our planet. He saw this universe as a closed entity. There was nothing beyond it--there was no infinity, there was just an end. And if there was no infinity, then there was no void, no unknown.
Christians were on board with this...mostly. They liked Aristotle's idea because it implied that within this closed universe, God was in control, moving around the various planets and stars. However, Christianity (and most religions, of course) was based on the idea that God created Earth. If God created it, then before it was created, there must have been nothing, right? The void problem is back. If there is a void, that went on forever before God created the Earth, then was there also a time when there wasn't a God? And if there was, then who created God? All of this puzzled many a medieval cleric, and while they may not have exactly worked out this puzzle, they knew one thing--they didn't want to have anything to do with a zero.
It was around this point that I began to get hopelessly lost (to be honest, I'm not even sure I exactly nailed the above mini-history). The Christians and Westerners finally came around, and I think it had something to do with imaginary numbers. Or maybe irrational numbers. Or maybe even, oh my goodness, calculus. Basically, as soon as all the types of math that I failed at in high school entered the picture, I checked out mentally and never recovered (it is a pretty short book, after all).
I don't want to blame this on Seife--he's obviously writing for the non-mathematician, but my feeble brain apparently defies even the most patient of teachers. I struggled on, trying to just ignore the equations that looked like squiggly lines to me, hoping that eventually I'd hit another history section, but even when I did it didn't matter, as those sections referred to the equations I hadn't gotten. So in the end, I got almost nothing (zero!) out of this book because, to be quite blunt, I am too stupid. I bow meekly before you, Mr. Seife, and your legions of clever readers.
I guess the moral of this story for me is that try as I might to learn things I don't know, some things are maybe just beyond me, no matter how hard I try. In the end, I am a math idiot and will always be a math idiot.
But I bake a damn fine cake.
Turn an eight on its side and it becomes dangerous infinity...