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Charles Seife '95MS
As computer technicians throughout the world prepared for the Y2K rollover, even people who rarely gave numbers much thought were forced to contemplate the most powerful number of them all—zero. But though the cause of their particular concern was a modern one, fears that zero could bring down civilizations have surprisingly ancient roots.
In the shadowy beginnings of mathematics, which scientists believe originated in the Stone Age, there was no zero. “It seems that people could only distinguish between one and many,” notes Charles Seife, who traces the development of this oddball number from its invention in Babylon several thousand years before the birth of Christ to its key modern position in explaining the origin and fate of the universe. But, as Seife points out in this fascinating history, zero was one Eastern import that the West was in no hurry to embrace.
“The Greeks hated zero so much that they refused to admit [it] into their writings, even though they saw how useful it was,” notes the author. “The reason: Zero was dangerous.”
Not only was the number intimately associated with the void, and with emptiness, chaos, and disorder—ideas which spooked the Greeks—but “to the ancients, zero’s mathematical properties were inexplicable,” says Seife.
The result of adding, subtracting, or multiplying by zero was puzzling enough, but “dividing by zero once—just one time—allows you to prove, mathematically, anything at all in the universe,” the author writes.
While the Greeks and their philosophical heirs in the Catholic Church succeeded in suppressing the number for more than 2,000 years, zero could not be done away with by decree. Seife traces how the number flourished in the East, and how it eventually resurfaced in the West, where traders and artists, beginning in the 13th century, started to embrace it. The rise of science and mathematics in the Renaissance and beyond would eventually end the Church’s refusal to accept zero, and the number would, in time, become a force to reckon with as researchers developed calculus, relativity theory, quantum physics, black hole cosmology, and insights about the very moment of creation.
Math phobes should be forewarned: Seife explores some pretty esoteric phenomena, and he does use charts and equations. But his explanations are unusually clear, so suspending fear should prove worthwhile.
Andres Martinez '88
A couple of years ago, the author, who had studied history at Yale, practiced law, and worked as a financial reporter for the Wall Street Journal, took a major gamble. Martinez decided to become a freelance writer, and as if that weren’t a big enough risk, the book contract on which he staked his future was the ultimate high-stakes affair. A publisher had fronted him $50,000 to examine Las Vegas, the fastest growing metropolis in the country, but the bankroll came with a catch: The advance was not simply to pay for room and board while the author explored the open-24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week ambience of “Sin City"; the money had to be put on the table.
“In blackjack, to double down is to double your bet before taking a third card,” notes Martinez. “In life, to double down is to raise the stakes when the going seems good. This is the chronicle of two frantic double downs.”
The result is an engaging portrait of a city that is already quite unlike any other in the United States and is betting at least $7 billion on an effort to once again reinvent itself. “The story of Las Vegas is less about hotel rooms and gambling than it is about American mythology,” says Martinez. “Las Vegas is our mirror out in the desert.”
The author prowls the city to discover what’s behind this imaginatively wrought mirage, and in so doing, he also tells an adventure story in which a novice armed only with chutzpah, the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Gambling Like a Pro, and a cabbie’s advice to “endeavor to be as crazy on the upside as you are on the downside,” manages to turn $50,000 into … Well, to give the final tally is to give away too much, but suffice it to say that in the aggregate, Vegas and the dozen or so casinos the author samples didn’t come away losers.
However, at blackjack, craps, roulette, video poker, the slots, baccarat, the horse races, the World Cup betting pool, and every other form of legalized gambling known to humanity, Martinez certainly fought the good fight and often achieved the ultimate form of recognition in the hotels: He got “RFB’ed.” That term is casino shorthand for being entitled to complimentary room, food, and beverages, and it was the result of the author’s prodigious gambling activity. (The computer at the Luxor Hotel, a replica or an Egyptian pyramid, the computer noted that Martinez wagered for 16 hours and 45 minutes with an average bet of $252.) “Comped. It’s such a sweet term,” said Martinez. “While I wasn’t one of the whales—the highest of the high rollers, who can lose a million dollars in a night and not break a sweat—it was dawning on me that I was something of a barracuda… I’d clearly done good, real good.”
Ann Braude '87PhD
Women may be the “backbone” of most religious organizations, but their service has often gone unnoticed. Historian Ann Braude introduces readers to the critical role played by female leaders of various groups.
The author, whose ancestors fought with Davy Crockett at the Alamo, recounts his experiences in some of the most horrific battles of the Vietnam War. The tales of his “baptism” in the Central Highlands are both gripping and poignant.
The devotion American surrealist Joseph Cornell had for the cinema was often expressed in his art. Hauptman, an art historian, examines Cornell’s homages to film stars such as Lauren Bacall, Greta Garbo, and Marilyn Monroe.
Lyons '03, with Ohenba Boachie-Adjei, MD, John Podzius, and Carla Podzius
More than five million people suffer from scoliosis, a deformity of the spine. Brooke Lyons, a Yale freshman, dancer, and national teen spokesperson for the Scoliosis Association, tells everyone affected how to cope.
The author and his family left Cuba in 1960. Several years ago, he was able to return, and the result is a bittersweet look, accompanied by superb photographs (Mendoza teaches photography at Ohio State), at the island he still calls his spiritual home.
Drinking fresh cider is as American as, well, apple pie. Watson provides an intriguing history of this ancient drink—the first references to the beverage date from the time of Julius Caesar—along with techniques and recipes for the cider do-it-yourselfer.
More Books by Yale Authors
Eric Alterman ’86MA
Leonard Barkan '71PhD
Truman F. Bewley, Alfred Cowles Professor of Economics
David Bromwich '73, ’77PhD, Bird White Housum Professor of English
Barnaby Conrad III '75
Stephen Cushman '82PhD
Charles Evered '91CDR
Ann Fabian '82PhD
Glenn Fleishman '90 and Jeff Carlson
Michael Friedman ’86MA
David H. Guston '87
James Hanson '61 and Sanjay Kathuria, Editors
Olga Peters Hasty '80PhD
Peter Isler '78 and Peter Economy
Sydney M. Lamb '51
Jill Lepore '95PhD
Townsend Ludington '57, Editor
Theodore R. Marmor, Professor of Public Policy and Management
Archer Mayor '73
Julie A. Mertus '88JD
Mark E. Neely Jr. ’66, ’73PhD
James Parakilas '72MA, Editor
Sally M. Promey '78MDiv
Mariann Regan '69PhD
Barbara Dianne Savage '95PhD
Kim Sichel '86PhD
Jonathan Spence '65PhD, Sterling Professor of History
Valerie Sperling '87
G. Edward White ’67PhD
Ben Yagoda ’75
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