Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Finding Zero

Finding Zero
Amir Aczel
3.5 / 5

Published January 6, 2015

First Sentence
"When I entered first grade in the late 1950s, at a private school in Haifa, Israel, called the Hebrew Reali School, I was asked a question the institution always asked its entering students."
Publisher's Description:
The invention of numerals is perhaps the greatest abstraction the human mind has ever created. Virtually everything in our lives is digital, numerical, or quantified. The story of how and where we got these numerals, which we so depend on, has for thousands of years been shrouded in mystery. Finding Zero is an adventure filled saga of Amir Aczel’s lifelong obsession: to find the original sources of our numerals. Aczel has doggedly crisscrossed the ancient world, scouring dusty, moldy texts, cross examining so-called scholars who offered wildly differing sets of facts, and ultimately penetrating deep into a Cambodian jungle to find a definitive proof. Here, he takes the reader along for the ride.

The history begins with the early Babylonian cuneiform numbers, followed by the later Greek and Roman letter numerals. Then Aczel asks the key question: where do the numbers we use today, the so-called Hindu-Arabic numerals, come from? It is this search that leads him to explore uncharted territory, to go on a grand quest into India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and ultimately into the wilds of Cambodia. There he is blown away to find the earliest zero—the keystone of our entire system of numbers—on a crumbling, vine-covered wall of a seventh-century temple adorned with eaten-away erotic sculptures. While on this odyssey, Aczel meets a host of fascinating characters: academics in search of truth, jungle trekkers looking for adventure, surprisingly honest politicians, shameless smugglers, and treacherous archaeological thieves—who finally reveal where our numbers come from.

Dear Reader,

This book was so much more than I expected. I went in to it anticipating a somewhat dry (if layperson) look at numbers and how they came to be a part of our world. I expected chapters to be organized by history, or by theory. Instead, this book read much more like a memoir. It began with the author's adventures as a young boy as the son of a ship captain, and how he became interested in seeking out the source of our Arabic numerals. There were parts that were kind of slow and there were parts which I just wanted to get through, but by the end I was almost on the edge of my seat! Aczel isn't a great writer - you can tell he is more of a math-minded person than a literature one - but he really did capture my attention and got me joining him during his triumphs and missteps as he traveled the world seeking that elusive first zero. I will admit the book took some getting used to, and as I said there were certainly parts which had me questioning whether I wanted to go on, but I am so glad that I did. The story as a whole was really worth it. And, I learned so much more than I thought I would along the way!

Going back to Dr. Aczel being more of an academic, there were certain points of the book which frustrated me, mostly relating to him skimming over concepts which I either didn't fully grasp from his glazed-over explanations, or ideas or references which I would have liked him to delve into further. For instance, on page 24 he mentions Maxwell's equations in physics as a good example of the important role the zero can play in other fields outside of mathematics - but never actually tells me what those are. Granted, they could be well beyond my understanding, I get that. But I'd have loved at least a footnote that gave me further reading or some sort of basic idea of the concept. I don't like having to pull myself away from a book just to Wikipedia something to get the gist of it. Another thing he mentions a page earlier is that "the double-entry bookkeeping system used in accounting today was developed in Europe in the thirteenth century in part to avoid using negative numbers." Okay, but I am not an account, and that intrigued me - I wanted to know more. I think I am familiar with the idea, but I'd have loved an example. In yet another point in the book, he examines logic and looks at syllogisms, using shorthand "A" and "O" which I am guessing to mean "assumption" and "observation" but...I don't know, and that bothers me. It was just those little tidbits which I would have liked to have given to me, the lay reader. He is clearly not writing to the mathematician. (NB: This was an ARC, and explanatory text may have been added during the final editing stages - I'd love to see a finished copy to check.)

On the flip side, Aczel did a wonderful job of throwing in lots of little extras - from photos of his father and many of the other people he encountered there, to fascinating little histories that he scattered throughout the book which really made it the gem it turned out to be. Outside of his own quest, he shared those of fellow zero seekers, and short histories of many of the places he visited. While, for example, I had always been vaguely aware of the Khmer Rouge, I learned so much more about that awful era and what it did to Cambodia's history. It makes me eager to learn more - and I do so love books which can do that.


Finding Zero

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