The Nothing That Is: A Natural History Of Zero, by Robert Kaplan
This book is a reminder that natural histories of anything tend to be dodgy and unsatisfactory affairs. Of all of the genres of books that I read and fairly regularly see, natural histories have among the most consistent records of failure in achieving their goals. A large part of that has to do with the expectations someone has from history as a source that is based on texts and sound analysis and what is provided here being something far more personal in approach. If you like the author’s personality and opinions, this is probably a book that one would greatly appreciate. I must admit that I did not like it all that much, so the fact that this book was so casual in its approach was a bit irritating as it meant that I had to see the author’s unpleasant personality and read his personal views being spewed about the pages, and that made for less than pleasant reading. If it is in general not very enjoyable to read books by authors with different worldviews, it is especially unpleasant when the authors drop the veil of evenhandedness and simply spew what comes to their minds.
This book is about 200 pages long and is filled with a variety of short chapters. The author begins with acknowledgements and a note to the reader. After that the author looks at the lens (0) and the author’s discussion of his viewpoint that the mind puts its stamp on matter (1). This is followed by a discussion of the fact that the Greeks had no word for zero (2) and some look at traveler’s tales about India (3). This is followed by a look at the trail of zero eastward (4) as well as its role as part of the dust of Arabic numerals (5) and the growing importance of zero (6) as an expression of the unknown. This is followed by a discussion of the shift in zero’s importance in late medieval mathematics (7), an interlude about the dark side of counting in the Mayan culture (8), and a look at the increasing use of zero as time went on (9) in the early modern period. After this the author discusses the power of nothing (10), things that are almost nothing but not quite nothing (11), and a few chapters to close that discuss the author’s own thinking about where zero is going in the contemporary period and the author’s discussion of zero and nothing with regards to questions of meaning and purpose (12-16), after which the book closes with an index.
What does one get from this book? Zero is a tricky subject. The author does at least manage to convey the trickiness of the zero, even if it is not necessarily going to be to everyone’s liking, and that is worthy of some appreciation at least. If this book is interesting, it is mainly for the way that the author uses the subject of zero to promote his own views about human creativity. I happen to think that the author’s views are rubbish and pretty worthless, and so the fact that this book is merely an attempt by an author to promote a worldview on the sly with more than a little bit of a hidden agenda is lamentable and unfortunate. While we review the books that are and not the books that we wish we were reading, this book does at least provide the reader with the question of how it would be better. What would be better than trying to write a natural history of the zero? How about just writing an honest to goodness history? In general, if you are reading a natural history about anything, the odds are that it will neither be as natural or as historical as it ought to be, largely because natural history is usually a code word for a naturalistic just-so explanation of something that had other historical aspects that are not being taken into consideration by the blinkered author.