Source of book: borrowed from the library
Date originally published on Facebook: December 3, 2010.
am republishing my early Facebook reviews on my blog. This book was
fascinating. Definitely one of my favorite books in the sciences and
The title for this book comes from Wallace Stevens’ poem, The Snow Man.
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
I quote the whole poem because I like it, not that it is central to the book. Except for the last line.
order that there be no confusion, I want to clarify that this book is
written by Robert Kaplan the mathematics professor and author; not
Robert S. Kaplan, of Harvard Business School, also a professor and
author; or Robert D. Kaplan, of The Atlantic Monthly; or even Bob
Kaplan, former Canadian MP. Since all except for the last have been
published recently, it is easy to get mixed up.
Kaplan teaches an interesting variety of subjects. Math, of course, but
also several languages including Sanskrit. He also has taught “Inspired
Guessing”, which sounds intriguing. This book is mostly about math and
the history thereof, but also about the intersection of math and
Nothing that Is looks at the history of the concept of zero. For anyone
who has attempted to multiply using Roman numerals, it is clear that
zero was a revolutionary change in mathematics. The use of a placeholder
simplified notation, certainly, but it also opened up new worlds of
am not a mathematician like several in my family and in my wife’s
family. I did fine in high school, but never went beyond trigonometry
and coordinate geometry. It would have been fun to take calculus, but I
never was able to fit it in. That said, I still remember my algebra and
plane geometry pretty well. Thus, with this limited scope of knowledge, I
was happy that I made it through 150 pages before my head got spun. I’m
thinking I should take a look at calculus sometime, but I probably need
someone to walk me through it until I get a “eureka” moment.
book could have been boring, but wasn’t, largely because Kaplan writes
with both skill and enthusiasm. Kaplan uses his broad knowledge of
literature and philosophy to connect the math with the era and its ideas
and prejudices. His discussion of the Mayans alone was worth the time
do not intend to reiterate the substance of this book, as I could, at
best, make a pale imitation. Zero’s story is fascinating whether you
liked math or not, and Kaplan tells it well.
addition to the history, Kaplan spends some time discussing philosophy.
After all, numbers (other than counting numbers used for specific
things) are an abstract construction. We define them, and manipulate
them using rules that are as much invented as discovered. Despite this,
as we have built ever more complex systems of calculation, we have
discovered that they in fact represent the nature of the world. The
development of calculus enabled every science dealing with curves from
engineering to astronomy. If the math can be used to predict the actual
world, how in fact are they related? Kaplan has no axe to grind here,
and doesn’t tip his hand as to his own philosophy. Instead, he examines
through both math and philosophy how both attempt to approach and define
suspect the book may seem simplistic for a true math scholar, but for a
dabbler like me, it was both entertaining and thought provoking. Unless
you hate math, history and philosophy (in which case I pity you), give
this book a read.