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Amir D. Aczel – Finding Zero

July 28, 2015

LibraryThing Early Reviewers26. Finding Zero: A Mathematician’s Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers by Amir D. Aczel (2015)

Length: 256 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction

Started: 28 May 2015
Finished: 31 May 2015

Where did it come from? LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.
Why do I have it? I like history of science, so I thought I’d give this one a chance.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 02 Feb 2015.

I’ve got 99
problems but a history
of 0 ain’t one.

Summary: When the author was a young boy (as he tells it, the first time he’s taken into a casino by the steward of a ship on which his father was captain), he became obsessed with numbers, where they came from, why the mean what they mean. Our numerical system influences the ways we can use mathematics, and may well shape the even the way we think, but its origins are not well understood. This book chronicles the author’s investigations into where our numbers come from – particularly, when the idea of (and symbol for) zero entered our understanding, and from where. Aczel argues that the earliest zero came from Cambodia, and that the concept of zero – the idea of representing nothingness – has its roots in Buddhist philosophy.

Review: Amir Aczel really, really wants to see himself as Indiana Jones; that was my primary take-away from this novel. The idea was certainly planted by the cover copy (one blurb blatantly states “Amir Aczel is the Indiana Jones of the mathematical world”), but it was backed up by his own words from the book itself, as well as the way he recounts the “exciting personal adventure” and “drama that erupted” (more blurbs) of his finding evidence of the earliest known zero in a carved rock in Cambodia. In the preamble, he states “In my search, I explored uncharted territory, embarking on a quest for the sources of these numbers to India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and ultimately to a jungle location in Cambodia, the site of a lost seventh-century inscription. On my odyssey I met a host of fascinating characters: academics in search of truth, jungle trekkers looking for adventure, surprisingly honest politicians, shameless smugglers, and suspected archaeological thieves.” Sounds exciting, right? However, in reality, his “adventures” mostly involved e-mailing people and dealing with passport officials and lost taxi drivers. Not exactly cinematic stuff.

Also, his “suspected archaeological thieves” were in fact other researchers who – upon hearing about his discovery – decided to work on the artifact… something which they had government permission to do (and Aczel did not). I absolutely don’t mean to diminish Aczel’s work – his investigations and deductions that lead to his discovery of the artifact were clever, and I agree with his argument that this rock with the earliest known zero is an important piece of scientific history. However, his comparison of the event to the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark (“Once again, Dr. Jones, something that was briefly yours is now mine!”) struck me as kind of petulant. “These two Italians were grabbing my find – right in front of me – after so many years of my searching for it.” “I began to suspect that she had another motive: Was she planning to try to pass it off as her own discovery, by publishing an academic paper, perhaps?” And since this scene was the centerpiece around which the whole book revolves, it left kind of a bad taste in my mouth.

Ultimately, I did learn some interesting things from this book. And, as was the case in Aczel’s previous book, The Cave and the Cathedral, while I’m not sure I entirely buy all of his theories, they certainly present interesting possibilities. However, I think the author is trying to oversell the adventure angle of things in order to flesh the story of his discovery out to book-length; most of the real material in here would have fit very comfortably into a National Geographic-style article. 2 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you’re interested in the history of science and mathematics, this book may appeal to you, but if you want the key factual points without all of the “personal adventure”, I recommend just reading the May 2013 Huffington Post article on the discovery, also written by the author.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Maybe unsurprisingly, I couldn’t find any on the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: The invention of numbers is one of the greatest abstractions the human mind has ever achieved.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 85: “His grandson, George, would throughout his life maintain the ligature between the o and the e in Cœdès, as well as on the accent grave on the second e.” – A character, letter, or unit of type, such as æ, combining two or more letters. (I could figure this one out from context but I didn’t know that that was what it was called, so it goes in the list.)
    .

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