Friday, 21 March 2014

The Nothing That Is by Robert Kaplan

Kaplan never met a literary allusion he didn't like.

At times this works, as it adds depth and surprising insight into some of the mathematical concepts he's talking about. At other times, it feels remarkably scattershot, and adds little to the material. Not every reference in every classic to nothing or nothingness needs to be included - pick the ones that actually add something to the discussion, please.

Most of the time, this is a remarkable work of the history of mathematics, specifically the concept of zero, and its murky beginnings. Kaplan does a good job of looking at all the possible antecedents, the possibilities for when it changed meaning to become the zero we know and love, or know and hate, or look at and are frankly baffled by its implications for math. The ways in which zero loves to screw with our sense of math, both making it work on a fundamental level and creating problems that can only be solved by philosophically skirting the edge of a void and trying not to think about it too much.

He goes through its history, through the Classical World, to India, to the Middle East, and back to Europe, and its sketchy and suspect history through the middle ages, where certain kinds of ciphering were regarded with as much suspicion as could be mustered.

From there, it's off to the mathematicians, and how they used and defined this useful concept, both adjective and noun, and how it is used today.

It's an enjoyable read, even though he does try to come off as too erudite.

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