The magic of numbers is nothing new to the field of literature. Over the past two decades many popular books have explored the theme of immutable numbers and their special properties. A quarter of a century ago, the book “A History of Pi” took the nation by storm and mathematics became an interesting and publicly identifiable discipline rather than the realm of scientists. A newly published book on another mythical but immutable number has come to the national consciousness. Robert Kaplan’s book “The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero”. The number zero has many properties that make it unique over any other number. Deep in the heart of elementary mathematics, this is a term that we all learn and it is left unchanged whatever it is added to or subtracted from. One of the advantages of Kaplan’s book over his competitors is his rich understanding of the history behind the number zero and his ability to narrate his findings in an extremely interesting manner. He explains that the acceptance of zero as a fundamental number with an actual arithmetical value was not an easy road, and that in fact it we now take for granted the power of the number itself. He fully explores the historical, intellectual and cu Continue...

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While Kaplan's account is very engaging in many ways, he also drags in many places. This conclusion, which seemed self-evident from the beginning, is stressed within every chapter, and Kaplan builds a very strong case centered on this concept. Although Kaplan attempts to turn this narrative into one of conflict, the reality is it is a situation of assimilation. However, because this book relies not on natural tension but in fact on how the number has impacted society, it is artificial in many ways and lacks significant depth. Through his writing it is clear that zero has its roots deep within our history and that it has facilitated the growth of many of our fundamental scientific understandings. Hindu-Arabic number system changed arrhythmic on a worldwide scale and it is still the system that is in use today. The way in which he frames these ideas helps the reader to appreciate the rich history behind the use of zeros rather than just the number itself. He explains the controversy and how it impacted Greek society and the Greek tutelage. He details that within the Arab-Indian numeric system as well as the Greek numeric system, the number zero was officially a placeholder, and that at a conceptual level it did not have the same application as other numbers within the numeric system. While this would seem to be the natural theme of the book the reality is that it never fully explains the implications of nothingness. Kaplan's adept use of alternative scenarios in this case is crucial to our appreciation for zero. Kaplan explains that the ideation of using only ten numbers to represent all arithmetic symbols was first developed in India before the 5th century. This point is established in many different ways. The evident truth about this book is that the number zero is not very interesting.

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