“THE NOTHING THAT IS: A Natural History of Zero”
Book by: Robert Kaplan Review by: Evan Linman
“What is nothing?” While this paradoxical question may seem inconceivable and difficult to answer, Robert Kaplan did an exceptional job with the absurd task he had at hand. “A Natural History Zero” gives an in-depth explanation concerning the origins of zero in modern day mathematics and how nothing is an often overlooked but immensely important principle intertwined with existence itself. While many would assume that a book about Zero and Nothing would be dull, Kaplan has done an exceptional job in narrating the history of nothingness while keeping the reader absorbed in the complex existence of both with fantastic yet serious remarks that coerce the reader to contemplate the seemingly simple and common ideas skillfully reiterated in this book.
Before the idea of zero, mathematics and literature had lacked a key principle that today is at the core of countless different fundamentals that are immensely important to life today. Early on in the book Kaplan begins to explain that even though the ideas of Zero and Nothing did not exist in many early systems of counting and cultures, and even though they constantly eluded discovery, hints of their existence were indisputably prevalent and it would only be a matter of time before their significance was unearthed. With in-depth analyses of the origins of zero, Kaplan shows that an idea that seems so normal to us was revolutionary and truly astounding when it was first theorized. Kaplan helps us to truly understand that zero is not a boredom inducing nothingness, but rather an astonishing concept of existence that has helped to modernize our world in ways that we would never have known, along with demonstrating that the idea of nothingness is one which baffles the mind even with the most comprehensive of examinations
“Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” The final sentence of the book, unencumbered by an intricate explanation or elucidation, appears to have been intentionally unaccompanied by a stunning response for the question itself is already mind-boggling. Without assistance from an explanation by the author, the question compels the reader to attempt to comprehend the truth behind the query. That nothing is not only the lack of substance, like most people assume, but is itself an entity both real and theoretical. Nothing is both the lack of matter, the “Nothing that is not there.”, and the presence of Nothing as a substance, or “The Nothing that is.” Robert Kaplan helped trace the emergence of Zero back to its origins as wedges drawn on wet clay and then goes on to explain the complexities and intricacies involved in the development of the concept.
Even with the sophistication of the idea faced in the book, Kaplan has done a superb job in clarifying the topic and making it digestible for not only authorities on the subject but also for the books ordinary readers. With elaborate and thought-provoking vocabulary that collaborated with his knowledgeable commentary on the subject, Kaplan has constructed a book that truly does absorb the reader, peak their interest, and coax them to ponder such an amazing idea in graspable portions. Overall, A Natural History of Zero was a superlative piece of writing that I enjoyed thoroughly and would suggest to any and all who enjoy intellectually stimulating reads along with those who want to further their knowledge regarding ideas that are as vital, yet as commonly overlooked as the true origins and meaning behind the remarkable concept of Zero.