The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

Additional Formats
  • Ebook
  • ISBN 9781101199602
  • 272 Pages
  • Penguin Books
  • 18 and up


The Babylonians invented it, the Greeks banned it, the Hindus worshiped it, and the Church used it to fend off heretics. Now it threatens the foundations of modern physics. For centuries the power of zero savored of the demonic; once harnessed, it became the most important tool in mathematics. For zero, infinity’s twin, is not like other numbers. It is both nothing and everything.

In Zero, Science Journalist Charles Seife follows this innocent-looking number from its birth as an Eastern philosophical concept to its struggle for acceptance in Europe, its rise and transcendence in the West, and its ever-present threat to modern physics. Here are the legendary thinkers—from Pythagoras to Newton to Heisenberg, from the Kabalists to today’s astrophysicists—who have tried to understand it and whose clashes shook the foundations of philosophy, science, mathematics, and religion. Zero has pitted East against West and faith against reason, and its intransigence persists in the dark core of a black hole and the brilliant flash of the Big Bang. Today, zero lies at the heart of one of the biggest scientific controversies of all time: the quest for a theory of everything.


PEN/Martha Albrand Award – winner

Table of Contents

Chapter 0: Null and Void
Chapter 1: Nothing Doing: The Origin of Zero
Chapter 2: Nothing Comes of Nothing: The West Rejects Zero
Chapter 3: Nothing Ventured: Zero Goes East
Chapter 4: The Infinite God of Nothing: The Theology of Zero
Chapter 5: Infinite Zeroes and Infidel Mathematicians: Zero and the Scientific Revolution
Chapter 6: Infinity’s Twin: The Infinite Nature of Zero
Chapter 7: Absolute Zeroes: The Physics of Zero
Chapter 8: Zero Hour at Ground Zero: Zero at the Edge of Space and Time
Chapter Infinity: Zero’s Final Victory: End Time
Appendix A: Animal, Vegetable, or Minister?
Appendix B: The Golden Ratio
Appendix C: The Modern Definition of a Derivative
Appendix D: Cantor Enumerats the Rational Numbers
Appendix E: Make Your Own Wormhole Time Machine

Selected Bibliography