What’s extremely interesting and involves God, torture, black holes, romans and pigeon droppings? Nothing.
There was recently a 3 for 2 offer on at Waterstones, and I picked up A Devil’s Chaplain (superb, I’ll get round to reviewing it one day) and The Elegant Universe (which I haven’t read yet) straight away, as I’d been after them for a while. Looking around for something else, I spotted Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea. The blurb looked interesting, so I added it to the pile. It turned out to be fascinating. As you may have guessed, it’s about the number 0. From being rejected by Pythagoras to abhorred by Aristotle to acceptance by Islam to holding back scientific progress for hundreds of years to illegal mathematical operations that solved problems to time travel to being at the cutting edge of modern physics, zero is way more interesting than you might have imagined.
I was constantly finding myself surprised as the story unfolded. Cool factual nuggets abound, such as Pythagoras’ hatred of beans that eventually brought about his own death. Or that the Greeks believed everything in the world could be expressed as a ratio of something else, hence the world ‘rational’. Or that the first guy to write a book on manipulating equations was called Al-Jabr. If you found those interesting, I can almost guarantee you’d enjoy this book. It’s aimed at the layman, but doesn’t shy away from equations, which I found refreshing. It’s also very well written, with a witty turn of phrase that had me laughing out loud on numerous occasions. To my mind it succeeds in evoking the excitement and interest inherent in mathematics but so often overshadowed by complexity and social fear. I don’t remember ever finding maths interesting at school. I could always do it, until I got to A-Level and started to doubt my own ability anyway, but it was always just something we were taught, never a larger concept than that. Now, however, it’s great! The power of calculus I find particularly extraordinary, and I’m trying to teach myself the basics when I get a spare moment. But I digress. I highly recommend this book, and if you’re stuck for a good read, or even just need a third tome to qualify for an offer, give it a shot.