Finding Zero: A Mathematician’s Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers by Amir D. Aczel (Palgrave, $26.00, 256 pages)
Each of us has a personal passion, maybe one that lingers from childhood, or is triggered by a chance encounter. For Amir Aczel, son of a passenger ship captain, numbers are at the center of his life’s work. As a child he traveled with his family during school breaks on his father’s ships. Navigation and the way ships follow a course fascinated him. Thus began a lifelong fascination with numbers and their origins.
A prolific author of twenty books – including Fermat’s Last Theorem, Aczel is also part-time lecturer in Mathematics at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and a research fellow at the Boston University Center for Philosophy and History of Science. Finding Zero is his own story – an autobiography of sorts. Aczel does not romanticize his quest for the origin of the zero; rather, his is a straightforward telling. Although he narrates the story of his life, it is by no means dry or self-centered.
Aczel’s unusual upbringing included exposure to historic places and above all, the joy of travel. The adults in his life encouraged his curiosity. Aczel became a person whose goal is to see for himself – IRL, in real life. Finding Zero is the journal of his years-long journey through the most ancient parts of human civilization where numbers were first used. The goal was simple, find the first use of the zero. But that’s not as simple as it seems.
The reader will appreciate Aczel’s direct and easy-to-read style of writing. A highly-educated man who teaches and researches in well-regarded academic institutions, Aczel does not aggrandize his work, or engage in puffery. He provides a unique perspective on numbers and illustrates how fundamentally math is a basic part of human lives, both in the past and in the present.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on January 6, 2015.