The origins of our numbers, of our decimal place value system, of our numerals, is certainly an interesting topic! After all, we take for granted that we write numbers the way we do today—most of us learned Roman numerals as kids and quickly realize they are clunky and formidable as we try to write the year we were born (although anyone born after 2000 has a much easier time of it now!). But Amir Aczel was curious about the origins of our number system, and in particular its linchpin of zero. Finding Zero is his very personal story of searching for evidence that the earliest known use of what became our zero symbol was in what is now Cambodia.
Aczel opens the book by describing his childhood aboard the cruise ship his father captained across the Mediterranean. Here, his father’s steward fostered a love of mathematics. Now, as a professor of mathematics in the United States, Aczel still dreamed of the origins of our numbers. Eventually he took a trip to India, which was basically the birthplace of the Arabic numerals we use today, to visit some of the oldest known examples of zero. Finally, he discovered the work of Georges Cœdès, an anthropologist who had previously noted the presence of a 0-like symbol in a Khmer inscription on a stele. The actual artifact, however, went missing during the Khmer Rouge’s destruction of Cambodia’s cultural history. Aczel’s story climaxes with his trip to Cambodia to find this artifact—if it still exists.
Often when a writer includes personal anecdotes, it’s relatable and interesting. I can’t say the same for this book. I was so interested in hearing Aczel talk about the properties of zero and why it’s important, but I could have done without the discussion of his childhood, etc. While it’s ultimately his choice how he decides to tell this story, it isn’t satisfying to me, and it’s quite self-aggrandizing. Aczel seems to see himself as a mathematical Indiana Jones on an epic quest to find the first 0. This is less about his discovery and more about his discovery. I would be much more tolerant of that if the writing were better—to be clear, I don’t think Aczel is doing anything wrong by writing this in a memoir form. I applaud him for trying to make the history of mathematics into an intense, exciting quest. Similarly, this book sheds light on the bias of Western mathematicians, the way we have shunned or dismissed the contributions of Asian—particularly south Asian—mathematics. Aczel does his best to explain how the inscription fits into what was a vibrant, advanced culture; similarly, he asserts the importance of making sure that the inscription survives and remains in Cambodia. These are laudable attitudes.
But honestly, there are better books about zero. Although 20 years old now, Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea remains my favourite book about this number. Seife certainly doesn’t go into the same level of detail that Aczel devotes to tracking the origin of the 0 symbol, that’s true. He basically attributes it to India and leaves it at that. Nevertheless, Seife’s book is so rich in history and ideas—and very well-written.
Moreover, it’s worth noting that in the years since this book was published, the Bahkshali manuscript has been carbon dated. Aczel mentions this manuscript in his book—it contains some of the suspected earliest examples of a 0 symbol in India. At the time he wrote the book, no one had been allowed to extract samples from the manuscript to date it for fear of irreparably damaging the fragile artifact. I guess that changed, and the results are in: pars of the manuscript pre-date, by several centuries, the inscription Aczel rediscovered in Cambodia. So Finding Zero is also somewhat out of date in this respect.
This is not a bad book, but it also isn’t one I would recommend. The mathematics are explored elsewhere in more detailed and interesting ways. And as much as I applaud Aczel’s adventurous spirit, I didn’t enjoy the way he told the story of his quest for the 0 symbol. I had hoped for a lot more here.