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For the first time in 1,000 years, we’re living in a year that has three zeros in it. So is it a coincidence that we’re now deluged with books about that strangest of numbers—zero?
Late last year, Robert Kaplan published The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero. Then Charles Seife came out with Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea. To confuse matters further, Robert Wright early this year published Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, but Wright’s book actually deals with topics other than the history of zero.
Naturally, reviewers have had a field day comparing and contrasting the zero books. “For all their similarities,” wrote Edward Rothstein in the New York Times, “the books’ accounts of nothingness approach zero from different directions. Mr. Seife…recounts his story as an accomplished science journalist, standing on the outside bringing clarity to complex ideas. The prose doesn’t sparkle, but the crisp explanations are refreshing.” In Time, Paul Hoffman contended that Seife’s volume “is the more accessible of the two,” adding that Kaplan’s book, “while philosophically deeper, is self-consciously obscure.” Curt Suplee in the Washington Post called Seife’s book “lively and lucid.”
Seife, who recently joined the staff of Science magazine in Washington, was a student of mathematics long before he was a science writer. A native of Scarsdale, N.Y., Seife earned a mathematics degree at Princeton, followed by a master’s in mathematics at Yale and a master’s in journalism from Columbia.
While at Yale, Seife won a summer science-writing internship at The Economist, which launched a science-writing career that took him to various internships, jobs, and freelance gigs with such mags as Scientific American; Science and its Web publication, Science Now; and New Scientist, a British newsweekly, where he worked until early this year.
Seife’s inspiration for the zero book, it happens, grew out of the notion of writing a book about infinity—a mathematical concept that’s as weird, in its own way, as zero is. Then Seife noticed an article in the Atlantic Monthly that inspired a flood of letters about how the absence of zero causes problems in our calendar—problems made clearest in the controversy over whether 2000 or 2001 is the real dawn of the new millennium. “I figured it had touched a nerve,” he says. “I turned my book on its head and made it about zero.”—Louis Jacobson