Review: “Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea”

Fact #15: Chuck Norris CAN Divide by Zero

If you had asked me about 0 (zero) pri­or to read­ing Zero: The Biog­ra­phy of a Dan­ger­ous Idea, the answer I could have giv­en would­n’t have been too inter­est­ing. After all, as far as I was con­cerned, zero was sim­ply the lack of some­thing, the num­ber between the whole num­bers ‑1 and 1… I may have men­tioned that 0 was also capa­ble of mak­ing cal­cu­la­tors com­plain; Win­dows Cal­cu­la­tor, for instance, when fed 1/0 returns Cannot divide by zero., which is more than most hand-held cal­cu­la­tors I’ve used return!

How­ev­er, some­thing I real­ized sev­er­al years ago is that a cal­cu­la­tor is being dis­hon­est by say­ing you can­not divide by 0; indeed, you can, but the answer is as dif­fi­cult to fath­om as 0 itself: ∞ (infin­i­ty). The online cal­cu­la­tors of reflect that when you attempt to divide 1 (or any­thing else) by 0.

Zero reaf­firmed that thought, and it added unto it a wealth of his­to­ry and knowl­edge about that seem­ing­ly innocu­ous number.

The jour­ney spanned from ancient his­to­ry, vis­it­ing with men like Aris­to­tle and Pythago­ras down through time to New­ton, Ein­stein, and Hubble.

The author, Charles Seife, enter­tain­ing­ly paints the plight faced by math­e­mati­cians, sci­en­tists, and philoso­phers of the ages when they have had to go toe to toe with zero.

Though I don’t mean to say the book is whol­ly acces­si­ble. I’d be lying if I said I under­stood every­thing Seife wrote; indeed, any­one with even a rudi­men­ta­ry under­stand­ing of cal­cu­lus would do bet­ter at grasp­ing some of the con­cepts in Zero than I would.

The advanced math­e­mat­ics dis­cus­sion was­n’t what made the book enjoy­able through­out, how­ev­er; what I par­tic­u­lar­ly liked was Seife’s deal­ings with the ques­tion of God. He did­n’t skirt the issue, but nei­ther did he exclaim that 0 (or any­thing else) was the death knell of God (or the con­cept thereof).

And though Seife does explain that the uni­verse begins and ends with 0 (rather than the God of the Bible), he does pro­vide a very pos­i­tive nod to belief in God in his dis­cus­sion of Pas­cal’s Wager.

Seife explained, Just as he ana­lyzed the value–or expectation–of a gam­ble, Pas­cal ana­lyzed the val­ue of accept­ing Christ as sav­ior. Thanks to the math­e­mat­ics of zero and infin­i­ty, Pas­cal con­clud­ed that one should assume God exists (p. 101).

Note that Pas­cal’s Wager is not a proof of God; it can­not be. How­ev­er, when giv­en the choice between belief in God or un- or dis­be­lief in God, Pas­cal deter­mined that there is infi­nite gain in believ­ing and infi­nite gain in disbelieving.

Pas­cal’s Wager holds true even if there is only a 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000 chance that God exists; it is still a bet­ter bet, so to speak, to believe in God. The mag­ic of zero and infin­i­ty makes it so. Actu­al­ly, the time when it is not bet­ter to believe in God is when there is a 0 chance that He exists, and frankly, no one will ever be able to make that con­clu­sion — the sci­en­tif­ic method is pow­er­less against things which are, well, by def­i­n­i­tion out­side the realm of nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­na, which a tran­scen­dent being cer­tain­ly would be.

Seife sums it up best on page 104:

If there is no chance that God exists, Pas­cal’s wager — as it came to be known — makes no sense. The expect­ed val­ue of being a Chris­t­ian would then be 0 × ∞, and that was gib­ber­ish. Nobody was will­ing to say that there was zero chance that God exists. No mat­ter what your out­look, it is always bet­ter to believe in God, thanks to the mag­ic of zero and infin­i­ty. Cer­tain­ly Pas­cal knew which way to wager, even though he gave up math­e­mat­ics to win his bet.

Don’t let that trip you up, though; Zero is not a trea­tise on the­ol­o­gy or the via­bil­i­ty of God-belief, and con­tin­u­ing on through the book, we find that Seife seems to accept that the uni­verse will one day die a heat death — a total freeze as the cos­mos expand for­ev­er, all ener­gy being expend­ed, all stars hav­ing collapsed:

The expan­sion of the uni­verse isn’t slow­ing down. It might even be speed­ing up. … The fate of our uni­verse will not be a big crunch but an eter­nal expan­sion, cool­ing, and heat death … The uni­verse will die a cold death, not a hot one. The answer is ice, not fire, thanks to the pow­er of zero.

I hope that most of my read­ers would look at that and think, Non­sense! Rev­e­la­tion says… And cer­tain­ly I agree with your faith in Rev­e­la­tion; how­ev­er, let’s not dis­count the sci­en­tif­ic expla­na­tion giv­en above…

An infi­nite­ly expand­ing uni­verse, with every­thing mov­ing far­ther away from every­thing else, filled with no more suns…

Stay with me here:

  • Rev­e­la­tion 20:11 states that the earth and heav­en (the uni­verse) is flee­ing away — it is mov­ing away.
  • Rev­e­la­tion 21:1 states that the first heav­en and Earth (the uni­verse) pass­es away, a phrase which seems to mean both cast aside and per­ished.
  • Rev­e­la­tion 22:5 states that there will no longer be the light of the sun there — God Him­self will be the light.

It’s some­what a stretch, sure, but it’s pret­ty amaz­ing that the Apos­tle John knew all that way back when, ages before New­ton’s grav­i­ty, Ein­stein’s rel­a­tiv­i­ty, and Hub­ble’s expan­sion. And I’m thank­ful to Seife for this lit­tle bit of con­fir­ma­tion of Scrip­ture, as strange of a con­fir­ma­tion as it is!

Zero is a great read, a lit­tle thick at times, a lot of fun at oth­ers (did you know that using the pow­er of 0, you can show that 1=2 and that Win­ston Churchill is a car­rot?). I rec­om­mend it to any­one who thinks they are a geek, espe­cial­ly a math geek, but also to any­one curi­ous about the uni­verse in which we live. Tru­ly, 0 is at the heart of it — a fit­ting touch to a cos­mos cre­at­ed by He who is Infinite.

Buy Zero: Biog­ra­phy of a Dan­ger­ous Idea at






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Rick Beckman