If readers can avoid getting bogged down in the side trips through Eastern philosophy, the journey to zero is an adventure...

FINDING ZERO

A MATHEMATICIAN'S ODYSSEY TO UNCOVER THE ORIGINS OF NUMBERS

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.

Pub Date: Jan. 6, 2015

ISBN: 978-1137279842

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

Review Posted Online: Oct. 23, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2014

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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As much a work of philosophy as of physics and full of insights for readers willing to work hard.

THE ORDER OF TIME

Undeterred by a subject difficult to pin down, Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, 2017, etc.) explains his thoughts on time.

Other scientists have written primers on the concept of time for a general audience, but Rovelli, who also wrote the bestseller Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, adds his personal musings, which are astute and rewarding but do not make for an easy read. “We conventionally think of time,” he writes, “as something simple and fundamental that flows uniformly, independently from everything else, uniformly from the past to the future, measured by clocks and watches. In the course of time, the events of the universe succeed each other in an orderly way: pasts, presents, futures. The past is fixed, the future open….And yet all of this has turned out to be false.” Rovelli returns again and again to the ideas of three legendary men. Aristotle wrote that things change continually. What we call “time” is the measurement of that change. If nothing changed, time would not exist. Newton disagreed. While admitting the existence of a time that measures events, he insisted that there is an absolute “true time” that passes relentlessly. If the universe froze, time would roll on. To laymen, this may seem like common sense, but most philosophers are not convinced. Einstein asserted that both are right. Aristotle correctly explained that time flows in relation to something else. Educated laymen know that clocks register different times when they move or experience gravity. Newton’s absolute exists, but as a special case in Einstein’s curved space-time. According to Rovelli, our notion of time dissolves as our knowledge grows; complex features swell and then retreat and perhaps vanish entirely. Furthermore, equations describing many fundamental physical phenomena don’t require time.

As much a work of philosophy as of physics and full of insights for readers willing to work hard.

Pub Date: May 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1610-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

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