Robert Kaplan, The Nothing That Is

It all seemed to make sense at the time, but now, just 24 hours after putting down Robert Kaplan's fascinating little book The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero, I'm having real trouble recapturing my understanding of what he was telling me.

The book itself is pretty much what the subtitle promises, an inquiry into the development of zero as an idea, a sign, a tool, a token, and so on, throughout human history. We know precious little about zero, sort of, except that it's a kind of hinge between sets of numbers: real and imaginary, rational and irrational, that sort of thing. Kaplan nevertheless has a go at sharing what little we know, in as accessible a form as possible, even if the tone makes it feel peculiarly like a fat 19th-century tome of intellectual history, complete with chatty asides and direct conversation with the reader and what I think might be deliberate (and hence possibly self-ironizing) self-importance.

There's lots of local colour through the ages, as Kaplan spends time with assorted mathematicians. A favourite for me was Bhaskara, an Indian mathematician who in 1150 AD wrote the Lilavati, a collection of math questions with responses included. Here's the one question Kaplan quotes in full from the Lilavati:
Beautiful and dear delightful girl, whose eyes are like a faun's! If you are skilled in multiplication, tell me, what is 135 times 12? (p.71)
Or perhaps even funnier, Kaplan recounts the outcome of a telephone call a science writer recently made to MIT to ask if you could count by zeros (the way you can count 1,2,3 by 1's, or 2,4,6 by 2's):
He held on to the phone while the question reverberated up the corridors and down, until the answer came back that no one could really say for sure; and anyway they were interested only in numbers that had been invented after 1972, so he had better call Harvard. (p.163)
I snorted aloud about that one, but I have a feeling that it's a nerd index issue, the extent to which you find it amusing....

We shift our scene between Greece and India several times, and spend centuries wandering Europe with mystics and scientists, eccentrics and systems thinkers. We learn a surprising amount about the surprisingly complicated math behind the Mayan calendar system, and we get glimpses of numerous other places and times as well. Really, though, it's about how we got to where we are now, so all these other stories feel subordinated to the absolute and mysterious present. And that, I'm not qualified to talk about.

Near book's end, Kaplan alludes to a saying attributed to John von Neumann, that in math it's not so much that you understand anything, so much as you get used to it (p.209). Maybe that's why I feel today as I do -- that I haven't had the time to get used to Kaplan's story. I'm not diving back in anytime soon, mostly because of available time (world enough and time, etc.), but he strikes me as a reliable guide. Know any general-interest nerds? Because this book just might excite them enough to interrupt, for a few hours, a rousing session of Dungeons and Dragons!


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