The Wax Conspiracy

Finding Zero by Amir D. Aczel

Zero either is or isn't the start of all things when counting and marking numbers. But where does the zero itself start? How far back between the two points of infinity does it go in recorded history?

Finding Zero is of many parts. A travel diary, a dash into philosophy and Buddhism, lessons on mathematics, notes on corruption. In all it wraps into a chase around the world into numerical history. It's a journey that starts with a young Amir Aczel and ends with a chapter toward the end that's bullets of sweat and tossing in your bed wondering what next will crumble after blurting your mouth.

Here we are then, engrossed in reading Aczel's anxious ordeals over emailing diplomats and government officials, of flying to one Asian country and another and back again. All this as we ponder the meaning behind the nothingness and the everythingness of the zero.

The void and the not null that shapes our lives and allows us to repeat numbers one through nine and not have to write things out in Roman numerals or hieroglyphs. It's a fascinating trek into the evolution of what makes the modern Hindu-Arabic number system work as it does.

Checking in with Mayans, Hinduism, competing (and biased) research papers and wanton acts of restoration, it ends up a thrilling chase to the origin. To the wilds of Cambodia and back into the humidity of not knowing where the next path will lead, and if indeed artifacts can even stand up to the ravages of the Khmer Rouge.

The narrative is personal and enthusiastic. From the seed that's planted as a young child, the loop keeps coming around to the exploration and getting to the bottom of it all. Like some kind of hoop thing that spins in a fashion. It's a satisfying tale of thinking about something, giving up on it, and then maybe coming around to it eventually, and eventually then leading into a monumental discovery with significant resonance.

Finding Zero: A Mathematician's Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers makes engaging work of a dry subject. Quick lessons on prime numbers and logic sets sit at ease against career anecdotes and dashes on hotel stays. Quite the adventure book for something as unseen and intriguing as knowing where our concept and use of zero originates.

Back cover of Finding Zero
Finding Zero from Palgrave Macmillan

The publisher provided a review copy.

Ethan Switch

Reviewed on Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Wax Conspiracy


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