criticism · maths · reading

Zero: the biography

Last year one of the most enjoyable things I saw on television was a show called Campus. Given how little television I watch (Match of the Day and, shockingly (and admittedly only very occasionally) Deal or No Deal) the fact that I consider this show to be one of the best might not seem to have any weight to it, but I honestly think it ranks very highly. Not quite as highly as Match of the Day, slightly higher than Deal or No Deal. No seriously, it was really very good. I was shocked (not literally shocked, shocked in that mildly indignant manner of someone writing a letter of complaint to Points of View) to discover that it might not be getting a second series. Viewing figures dwindled to an alarmingly low half a million. This is of course indicative of the decline of intelligent comedy and the human race as a whole. First no Campus second season, then no bees, then no us.

I’m rambling. The reason I mention Campus at all is one of the characters in it, the unexpectedly sexy math’s professor Imogen Moffat, had written a book about Zero. Every time the book was mentioned I thought about how much I want to read a book about zero. But of course this was an entirely fictitious book so the best I could do would be to imagine what it would have been like and pretend to read it in my mind. That is until I discovered Zero: the biography. A book which, as far as my fervent imaginings went, was essentially Miss Moffat’s fictitious book. I bought the audiobook version because I was desperate for something long and interesting to listen to at work on those long days when I am alone in a laboratory for seven and a half hours.

Zero begins with an historical account of the concept of zero, as well as the origins of the number and its place in mathematics. It then goes on to explain all the weird things that happen to maths when zero – and it’s twin infinity – become involved. The maths branches off into physics as that is where the practical applications, and alarmingly impractical side effects, of zero are to be found. The actual maths involved in the book is fairly easy to follow. The fundamental mathematical rule at play is that any number multiplied by zero is zero. A rule I can remember learning in school and that from then on had no impact on my life at all. The implications of this are then explored with tangible real-world examples used.

The journey of zero covers mathematical history, passes through philosophy and ends at physics but covers a huge amount of ground in between. The outcome of zero appearing in otherwise innocuous equations can be a little mind-bending with seemingly illogical conclusions arriving from perfectly logical processes but it is all explained with a manageable vernacular that allowed me to understand, even if I didn’t really understand.

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