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The publisher says The Nothing That Is is "in the tradition" of Dava Sobel's bestselling Longitude, presumably because it is both lyrically written and underillustrated. It's more accurate to describe it as in the tradition of something old enough to have a tradition: the cabinet of curios, a natural history in the old sense. Robert Kaplan is a mathematics teacher, and he organizes his cabinet around--nothing. How did we come to have a symbol for zero? Who used it first? Usually the invention (or discovery) of zero is given as occurring in India in about the year 600 CE. Kaplan gives much more shrift to Sumerian, Babylonian, and Greek experiments with abacuses, counting boards, positional notation, and abstract thought. He acknowledges that his approach will be controversial: Haven't all our dots funneled back to India? Were zero and the variable not truly born here, twin offspring of sunya and what seems the singularly Indian understanding of vacancy as receptive? But like an hour-glass, the funnel opens out again and the dots stream down to ancient Greece. Kaplan's meditations on zero are not confined to its origin. He muses on the "zero of self," on infinitesimals, on the Mayan zero, and on the nothingness of suicide. Throughout, he shows "a sensuous delight in syllables," a love of words as well as numbers, that makes the book a feast for both halves of the brain. --Mary Ellen Curtin

The Nothing that Is: A Natural History of Zero


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