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.
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.