Cover image for Finding zero : a mathematician's odyssey to uncover the origins of numbers
Title:
Finding zero : a mathematician's odyssey to uncover the origins of numbers
Author:
Aczel, Amir D., author.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York, NY : Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Physical Description:
x, 242 pages ; 22 cm
Summary:
"The invention of numerals is perhaps the greatest abstraction the human mind has ever created. Virtually everything in our lives is digital, numerical, or quantified. The story of how and where we got these numerals, which we so depend on, has for thousands of years been shrouded in mystery. Finding Zero is an adventure filled saga of Amir Aczel's lifelong obsession: to find the original sources of our numerals. Aczel has doggedly crisscrossed the ancient world, scouring dusty, moldy texts, cross examining so-called scholars who offered wildly differing sets of facts, and ultimately penetrating deep into a Cambodian jungle to find a definitive proof. Here, he takes the reader along for the ride. The history begins with the early Babylonian cuneiform numbers, followed by the later Greek and Roman letter numerals. Then Aczel asks the key question: where do the numbers we use today, the so-called Hindu-Arabic numerals, come from? It is this search that leads him to explore uncharted territory, to go on a grand quest into India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and ultimately into the wilds of Cambodia. There he is blown away to find the earliest zero--the keystone of our entire system of numbers--on a crumbling, vine-covered wall of a seventh-century temple adorned with eaten-away erotic sculptures. While on this odyssey, Aczel meets a host of fascinating characters: academics in search of truth, jungle trekkers looking for adventure, surprisingly honest politicians, shameless smugglers, and treacherous archaeological thieves--who finally reveal where our numbers come from. "--
Language:
English
ISBN:
9781137279842
Format :
Book

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Summary

The story of how we got our numbers - told through one mathematician's journey to find zero. The invention of numerals is perhaps the greatest abstraction the human mind has ever created. Virtually everything in our lives is digital, numerical, or quantified. The story of how and where we got these numerals, which we so depend on, has for thousands of years been shrouded in mystery. Finding Zero is an adventure filled saga of Amir Aczel's lifelong obsession: to find the original sources of our numerals. Aczel has doggedly crisscrossed the ancient world, scouring dusty, moldy texts, cross examining so-called scholars who offered wildly differing sets of facts, and ultimately penetrating deep into a Cambodian jungle to find a definitive proof. Here, he takes the reader along for the ride. The history begins with the early Babylonian cuneiform numbers, followed by the later Greek and Roman letter numerals. Then Aczel asks the key question: where do the numbers we use today, the so-called Hindu-Arabic numerals, come from? It is this search that leads him to explore uncharted territory, to go on a grand quest into India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and ultimately into the wilds of Cambodia. There he is blown away to find the earliest zero - the keystone of our entire system of numbers - on a crumbling, vine-covered wall of a seventh-century temple adorned with eaten-away erotic sculptures.


Author Notes

Amir D. Aczel was born in Haifa, Israel on November 6, 1950. He received bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley and a doctorate in decision sciences from the business school at the University of Oregon. He taught at several universities during his lifetime including the University of Alaska and Bentley College.

His first book, Complete Business Statistics, was published in 1989 and went through eight editions. His other books include How to Beat the I.R.S. at Its Own Game: Strategies to Avoid - and Fight - an Audit; Fermat's Last Theorem: Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem; The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity; The Riddle of the Compass: The Invention That Changed the World; Entanglement: The Greatest Mystery in Physics; and Finding Zero: A Mathematician's Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers. He died from cancer on November 26, 2015 at the age of 65.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 4

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* In ancient Buddhist meditations on the first door of liberation as emptiness, Aczel glimpses the origin of a powerful mathematical concept: zero. But to actually reach that origin, the author must complete an arduous double journey, one intellectual, another geographic. Readers share the exhilaration and frustration of both journeys. They accompany Aczel as he tests the limits of coldly cerebral Western mathematical logic against the stunning eroticism of numerical thinking in Hinduism, and weighs the true-false reasoning of Aristotle against the bewildering four-prong logic of the Buddha. But the quest for the birthplace of the zero and its curiously linked antithesis, infinity requires not just philosophical reflection. It also requires the physical exertion of travel: readers go to Mexico City to scan the Aztec Stone of the Sun for clues as to Mesoamerican numeracy, to Khajuraho to contemplate an ancient numerical matrix surrounded by statues of nude figures engaged in sex, and to Jaipur to inspect numerals inscribed on centuries-old astronomical instruments. But it is finally in a deserted shed in Cambodia that author and readers share the thrill of (re)discovering a long-lost stone clearly engraved with the world's first known zero! An exciting personal adventure reminding readers of how much nothing really means!--Christensen, Bryce Copyright 2014 Booklist


Publisher's Weekly Review

Prolific mathematics writer Aczel (Why Science Does Not Disprove God) leads a historical adventure that doubles as a surprisingly engaging math lesson. Fascinated with numbers and their origins from an early age, it's no surprise Aczel became a mathematician. A chance encounter with an Aztec artifact reawakened his childhood desire to trace the origins of the numbers we use-especially the placeholder, zero. Most histories taught that our familiar digits "were believed to have originated in India," but there was no proof of that. Hot on the trail of a possibly mythical ancient artifact, Aczel moves from India to Angkor Wat in modern-day Cambodia, along the Mekong River, and north into Vietnam. The story brims with local color, as well as insights into the history of mathematics and philosophy. Readers may find themselves questioning Aczel's sanity, as his obsession with zero's origins drives him from one dead end to the next, but it's difficult to avoid being drawn into his quest with these rip-roaring exploits and escapades. Photos. Agent: Albert Zuckerman, Writers House. (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Library Journal Review

Our system of decimal arithmetic notation, using the so-called Arabic numerals: 0,1,2.9, seems so natural and automatic that one feels it has always been that way for all people at all times. Of course, that is not the case. The numerals were invented in the distant past and have mutated into their current form only in the past few hundred years. In this combination of memoir, travelog, and philosophical musing, Aczel (mathematics, Univ. of Massachusetts, Boston; Fermat's Last Theorem) recounts his search for the origin of the numerals. In particular, he focuses on zero, the linchpin that makes the place-value system possible. His travels take him to India and onward to other parts of southeast Asia in an attempt to rediscover the once found, but then lost again, first-recorded use of a symbol for zero in arithmetic. By a combination of perseverance, timely assistance, and good fortune, Aczel finds his goal in Cambodia-evidence literally chiseled in stone-on a partially damaged but still legible stele that barely survived the depredations of the Khmer Rouge. VERDICT Recommended for anyone who cares about the history of mathematics and science.-Harold D. Shane, Mathematics Emeritus, Baruch Coll. Lib., CUNY (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Choice Review

There is little debate that the invention of the number zero was one of the most important developments in all of mathematics. Obviously, it has proved additionally invaluable to humanity in economics and technology. Historically, however, there has been much debate over who receives the credit for the invention. In particular, was it an Eastern or Western invention? Aczel (research fellow, Boston Univ.), a mathematician, journalist, and author of Fermat's Last Theorem (CH, Apr'97, 34-4520), sets out to settle the question once and for all. As the title suggests, this book is the record of his adventure in the search for the origin of the number zero. The earliest zero discovered in India is dated 876 CE. However, it can be argued that it was possible it had come from Arabia via Europe as a result of extensive sea trade. In 1931, Georges Coedès published a paper claiming he had found the number zero inscribed in a stone that came from Cambodia, which was dated at 683 CE. Unfortunately, as a result of political unrest in Cambodia there was no definitive proof until now. This fascinating work will be valuable for history of mathematics collections. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. --John T. Zerger, Catawba College