Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Much Ado about Nothing: Some thoughts on "Zero-the Biography of a Dangerous Idea"

Several months ago I received a copy of "Zero-The Biography of a Dangerous Idea" by Charles Seife. It was readable and entertaining, holding my attention long enough to read cover to cover in a few days. For the most part this is a new topic for me, and some of the mathematical discussion was above me, but I found it to be quite informative.

Nevertheless, it did not take long for my critical side to suspect that the story was somewhat dramatized for effect. It seems to me that the conflict presented by zero to the predominate western philosophy would, at times, require a greater recognition of the zero as a number (rather than merely a place holder), its relationship to nothing, or its relationship to infinity than was currently recognized.

My initial skepticism was at least somewhat supported not even halfway through the work:

Maimonides argued that there were flaws in Aristotle's proof that the universe had always existed. After all, it conflicted with the Scriptures. This, of course, meant that Aristotle had to go. Maimonides stated that the act of creation came from nothing. it was creatio ex nihilo, despite the Aristotelian ban on the vacuum. With that stroke the void moved from sacrilege to holiness. (page 75)

Of course Rambam made no such argument. On the contrary, the Rambam argued that the Scriptures could be reconciled with the idea that the universe had always existed. He explained that Plato's version of the eternity of the universe could be accepted had it been compelling. It was only the ancillary aspect of Aristotle's view view which proscribe miracles that the Rambam felt could not be reconciled with Torah. Even then, as I pointed out in my "Critique of Rabbi Jeremy Weider's "When the Torah Doesn't Mean What it Says" the Rambam doesn't say that the position is wrong because it contradicts Scripture, but rather that hypothetically if Aristotle's view (which negated miracles) were correct it would falsify Scripture and "we should be forced to other opinions.” (Moreh Nevuchim 2:25)"

When all is said and done, the book was enjoyable. I think that when taken with a grain of salt, most will come away with a better understanding of how zero showed up on the mathematical map. If Seife's presentation is somewhat stereotyped I don't think it is overly malicious. I think most inaccuracies can be attributed to someone trained in mathematics writing on history and/or a storyteller getting too caught up in weaving the story. Or maybe it's just me.

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