I read too quickly. The Nothing That Is, by Robert Kaplan, is about the history of zero.
Most of the book is, obviously, about the concept of zero in mathematics. It starts with the Sumerians, who came up with the concept, and then goes back and forth between the Greeks and the Indians, to figure out who came up with the symbol for it, and at which point it went from a type of punctuation to an actual number.
He pauses briefly on the Mayans and their psychopathic obsessions regarding zero and its significance in their calendar, and then moves on to Western Europe. It took a ridiculous amount of time for zero to be accepted as an actual number, apparently.
Like Barrow’s Book of Infinity, Kaplan has to talk about religion and theology a lot because of the nature of the subject matter, but unlike Barrow, he manages to remain neutral about it; not the faux neutrality that affords theology the same kind of credibility reality-based philosophies deserve, but actual neutrality, examining where the march of zero was slowed down because of it, and where it was accelerated.
Near the end, he tries to move away from mathematics and into physics, but it doesn’t really work. He tries to crowbar the concept into a number of places where it doesn’t belong, and is quickly reduced to weak philosophising.
There’s a chapter on the psychological implications of zero that’s really just painful to read as well.
Still, those are only a small part of the book, and the vast majority of it is extremely interesting and very well-written. Somewhere along the way he manages to talk about every mathematical concept twelve years of education tried to address, and explain it in a way that made considerably more sense than anything our teachers ever tried to tell us.
If you’re at all interested in history or mathematics (but aren’t an expert mathematician, probably), you’ll enjoy this book. Buy it.