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

Fact #15: Chuck Norris CAN Divide by Zero

A favorable review of the book Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife.

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 Calculator.com 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 Amazon.com

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