What conceptual blind spot kept the ancient Greeks (unlike the Indians and Maya) from developing a concept of zero? Why did St. Augustine equate nothingness with the Devil? What tortuous means did 17th-century scientists employ in their attempts to create a vacuum? And why do contemporary quantum physicists believe that the void is actually seething with subatomic activity? You’ll find the answers in this dizzyingly erudite and elegantly explained book by the English cosmologist John D. Barrow.
Ranging through mathematics, theology, philosophy, literature, particle physics, and cosmology, The Book of Nothing explores the enduring hold that vacuity has exercised on the human imagination. Combining high-wire speculation with a wealth of reference that takes in Freddy Mercury and Shakespeare alongside Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking, the result is a fascinating excursion to the vanishing point of our knowledge.
Nothing's conceptual origins were fraught with fear and disbelief, and only three civilizations independently discovered it. How Nothing went from a Babylonian place holder, a Mayan decoration in the empty space where no number fell and an Indian dot signifying all the current aspects of zero, to one of the most essential elements in mathematics, physics and cosmology, is the subject of this enlightening history. Barrow, a Cambridge professor of mathematical sciences and author of Theories of Everything and other books, follows Nothing's evolution in a clear, well-organized narrative. It is specific but neither confusing nor at any point slow, and while its more difficult scientific content will cause it to appeal less to general readers than K.C. Cole's The Hole in the Universe (Forecasts, Jan. 22), there are still plenty of tidbits and trivia that readers will want to share. For, as Barrow demonstrates, pondering the zero can lead to strange discoveries. Two adjacent ships on a calm sea with a brewing swell can be pulled together by a mysterious force similar to that pulling two plates together in a vacuum. Also, we keep time in units of 60 because it was the second base (along with 10) that the Sumerians used in counting. Nothing informs infinite aspects of life and the world at large, and Barrows does an excellent job of bringing its effects to light; plentiful illustrations clarify concepts and bring them into focus.