The author of the best-selling Fermat’s Enigma (1996) and other popular books on mathematics and science takes readers through a history of zero and takes himself on a journey through the jungles of Cambodia to find its earliest use.
Aczel (Why Science Does Not Disprove God, 2014, etc.) seems to have had a lifelong love for numbers and a special fascination with zero. As a child, he wanted to devote his life to traveling the world in search of an answer to the origin of numbers. In this book, he lives out part of that childhood dream. A brief discussion of the cumbersome Roman system, which lacked a zero, demonstrates the power of the zero, which makes our number system so efficient. Aczel rejects the theory that it was a European or Arabic invention but rather posits that it developed in eastern Asia. To him, the concepts of both infinity and of nothingness seem embedded in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. To get to zero, he takes readers through a short but sometimes bewildering course in Eastern philosophy that requires close attention. On learning that in the 1930s, a French archaeologist had discovered in Cambodia a stele inscribed with a date that utilized a dot for a zero in the seventh century, Aczel set out to find the stone tablet. Because the Khmer Rouge had destroyed so many of Cambodia’s cultural artifacts, his search was long, complicated and arduous and involves a slew of characters, helpful and otherwise. Aczel is nothing if not persistent, and in the end, he found the carving and photographed it. What happened afterward as he struggled to preserve this earliest known evidence of the use of zero is a story in itself.
If readers can avoid getting bogged down in the side trips through Eastern philosophy, the journey to zero is an adventure worth joining.