(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Book publishing, like culture more generally, is subject to “trends” that suddenly appear, flare into prominence, and, after a short burst or a surprisingly long run, fade away. One trick for publishers, writers, investors, and trend spotters of all kinds is to estimate the probable life span of a given trend, while others—columnists, media gurus, and so on—discourse on the trend’s meaning.

Why, for instance, has there been a proliferation of popular books about mathematics? Such books have been around for a very long time, but still the average book browser would have been startled to find on the local superstore’s “New Arrivals” table not only one but two books devoted to an itinerant Hungarian mathematician. Yet, in 1998, two books about Paul Erdös were neatly stacked there, cheek by jowl with the latest John Grisham novel.

With the same odd synchronicity, readers were offered not one but two books devoted to zero: Robert Kaplan’s The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero, published in the fall of 1999, and Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, published early in 2000. Seife’s mode is standard science journalism with a few extras deemed to be audience-pleasing. Kaplan tries something trickier, in the vein of David Berlinski’s quirky masterpiece A Tour of the Calculus(1995).

The dust-jacket photograph of Kaplan, a smiling older man with a walrus mustache, and the brief biography below it give a hint of his approach:

Robert Kaplan has taught mathematics to people from six to sixty, most recently at Harvard University. In 1994, with his wife Ellen, he founded The Math Circle, a program, open to the public, for the enjoyment of pure mathematics. He has also taught Philosophy, Greek, German, Sanskrit, and Inspired Guessing. Robert Kaplan lives in Cambridge, MA.

Translated, this is very informative. It says (as the glint in his eye already has suggested) that Kaplan is a free spirit, not a Typical Academic, not a pedant, heaven forbid. (Lest the reader may be inclined to dismiss Kaplan as a lightweight, there is that reference to Harvard.) He is a populist. He is in love with mathematics—and his wife is, too. (She provided the whimsical illustrations.) He likes children. He is a polymath, not a narrow specialist, but despite all that learning he does not take himself too seriously.

All this is winsome, and Kaplan is a winsome writer. Where the typical science writer seems unable to resist the nearest piece of prefabricated prose, Kaplan writes sentences that force the reader to do a double take, often followed by a smile. True, he seems at times too eager to entertain, like a preacher afraid the congregation may be dozing off. Taken in small doses, however, as it is meant to be taken, The Nothing That Is is absorbing, communicating Kaplan’s sheer sense of wonder at the manifold strangeness of the Real.

Calling on the “sense of wonder” is the stock in trade of the typical science journalist, who seems to think this sense can be evoked by pushing the right button (lots of galaxies—that does it every time). Kaplan, by contrast, leads the reader to experience wonder. So as he begins to relate the history of zero, tracing its origins to the clay tablets of the Sumerians, he highlights the gaps in the historical record. Instead of textbook history, with all the troublesome parts blandly smoothed over, he offers the pleasingly rough texture of imagination and informed conjecture.

One fertile subject for conjecture is how the two wedges that signified something like zero in Babylonian recordkeeping were transmuted, around the third century b.c.e., into a Greek symbol very much like the...

(The entire section is 1520 words.)