21 November 2007


"Some say the world will end in fire,
Some in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice."
("Fire and Ice" by Robert Frost)

I just finished Charles Seife's book, Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea. It was published in 2000 (a year with plenty of zeros). Seife is a mathematician and physicist who takes us on a journey through history. He outlines how cultures as diverse as the Babylonians, Mayans, and Greeks dealt with the concept of the number "0." He points out philosophical and theological approaches to zero. He shows how scientists have grappled with it, and with its counterpart, infinity.

Zero is written for non-scientists (like me), and Seife presents some really big (infinity) and really small (zero) ideas in an understandable way. (Please forgive the weak attempt at humor in the previous sentence.) He even takes on the fate of the universe. Will it eventually collapse in on itself as "the big crunch," the fiery mirror image of the big bang, which started it all? Or will the universe continue expanding until the galaxies, stars, and even atoms pull apart from each other in a chilly, dark death? He thinks the latter will be the case. He concludes, "The answer is ice, not fire, thanks to the power of zero."

So Frost prefers fire, but is willing to give ice a chance!

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