The Book of Nothing : Vacuums, Voids, and the Latest Ideas about the Origins of the Universe
What conceptual blind spot kept the ancient Greeks (unlike the Indians and Maya) from developing a concept of zero? Why did St. Augustine equate nothingness with the Devil? What tortuous means did 17th-century scientists employ in their attempts to create a vacuum? And why do contemporary quantum physicists believe that the void is actually seething with subatomic activity? You'll find the answers in this dizzyingly erudite and elegantly explained book by the English cosmologist John D. Barrow.
Ranging through mathematics, theology, philosophy, literature, particle physics, and cosmology, The Book of Nothing explores the enduring hold that vacuity has exercised on the human imagination. Combining high-wire speculation with a wealth of reference that takes in Freddy Mercury and Shakespeare alongside Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking, the result is a fascinating excursion to the vanishing point of our knowledge.
Nothing's conceptual origins were fraught with fear and disbelief, and only three civilizations independently discovered it. How Nothing went from a Babylonian place holder, a Mayan decoration in the empty space where no number fell and an Indian dot signifying all the current aspects of zero, to one of the most essential elements in mathematics, physics and cosmology, is the subject of this enlightening history. Barrow, a Cambridge professor of mathematical sciences and author of Theories of Everything and other books, follows Nothing's evolution in a clear, well-organized narrative. It is specific but neither confusing nor at any point slow, and while its more difficult scientific content will cause it to appeal less to general readers than K.C. Cole's The Hole in the Universe (Forecasts, Jan. 22), there are still plenty of tidbits and trivia that readers will want to share. For, as Barrow demonstrates, pondering the zero can lead to strange discoveries. Two adjacent ships on a calm sea with a brewing swell can be pulled together by a mysterious force similar to that pulling two plates together in a vacuum. Also, we keep time in units of 60 because it was the second base (along with 10) that the Sumerians used in counting. Nothing informs infinite aspects of life and the world at large, and Barrows does an excellent job of bringing its effects to light; plentiful illustrations clarify concepts and bring them into focus. (Apr.)Forecast: While this may appeal less to general readers than Cole's book, science aficionados will greatly enjoy the insights, the detail and the calculations.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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August 11, 2002
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Excerpt from The Book of Nothing by John D. Barrow
Nothingology — Flying to Nowhere 'Nothing', it has been said, 'is an awe-inspiring yet essentially undigested concept, highly esteemed by writers of a mystical or existentialist tendency, but by most others regarded with anxiety, nausea, and panic.'Nobody seems to know how to handle it and perplexingly diverse conceptions of it exist in different subjects.Just take a look at the entry for 'nothing' in any good dictionary and you will find a host of perplexing synonyms: nil, none, nowt, nulliform, nullity — there is a nothing for every occasion. There are noughts of all sorts to zero-in on, from zero points to zero hours, ciphers to nulliverses.There are concepts that are vacuous, places that are evacuated, and voids of all shapes and sizes. On the more human side, there are nihilists, nihilianists, nihilarians, nihilagents, nothingarians, nullifideans, nullibists,nonentities and nobodies. Every walk of life seems to have its own personification of nothing. Even the financial pages of my newspaper tell me that 'zeros'are an increasingly attractive source of income. Some zeros seem positively obscure, almost circumlocutory. Tennis can't bring itself to use so blunt a thing as the word 'nil' or 'nothing' or 'zero' to record no score. Instead, it retains the antique term 'love', which has reached us rather unromantically from l'oeuf, the French for an egg which represented the round 0 shape of the zero symbol.Likewise, we still find the use of the term 'love' meaning 'nothing' as when saying you are playing for love (rather than money), hence the distinction of being a true 'amateur', or the statement that one would not do something 'for love or money', by which we mean that we could not do it under any circumstances. Other games have evolved anglicised versions of this anyone-for-tennis pseudonym for zero: 'goose egg' is used by American ten-pin bowlers to signal a frame with no pin knocked down. In England there is a clear tradition for different sports to stick with their own measure of no score, 'nil' in soccer, 'nought' in cricket, but 'ow' in athletics timings, just like a telephone number, or even James Bond's serial number. But sit down at your typewriter and 0 isn't O any more. 'Zilch' became a common expression for zero during the Second World War and infiltrated 'English' English by the channel of US military personnel stationed in Britain. Its original slang application was to anyone whose name was not known. Another similar alliterative alternative was 'zip'. A popular comic strip portrays an owl lecturing to an alligator and an infant rabbit on a new type of mathematics, called 'Aftermath', in which zero is the only number permitted; all problems have the same solution — zero — and consequently the discipline consists of discovering new problems with that inevitable answer. Another curiosity of language is the use of the term 'cipher' to describe someone who is a nonentity ('a cipher in his own household', as an ineffectual husband and father was once described). Although a cipher is now used to describe a code or encryption involving symbols, it was originally the zero symbol of arithmetic. Here is an amusing puzzle which plays on the double meaning of cipher as a code and a zero: "U 0 a 0, but I 0 thee O 0 no 0, but O 0 me. O let not my 0 a mere 0 go, But 0 my 0 I 0 thee so." which deciphers to read "You sigh for a cipher, but I sigh for thee O sigh for no cipher, but O sigh for me. O let not my sigh for a mere cipher go, But sigh for my sigh, for I sigh for thee so." The source of the insulting usage of cipher is simple: the zero symbol of arithmetic is one which has no effect when added or subtracted to anything. One Americanisation of this is characteristically racier and derives from modern technical jargon. A null operation is technospeak for an action