How Sexy Is Chalk Dust?

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ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY MARC ROSENTHAL

To call mathematics a fin-de-siecle craze would be a bit of an exaggeration, but there is something remarkable about how the most arcane of academic disciplines has finally implanted itself firmly in popular culture. The trend began in 1994 when Princeton University's Andrew Wiles proved Fermat's Last Theorem, a cantankerous problem that had defeated the best mathematical minds for more than 350 years. Not since Archimedes ran naked from his bathtub shouting "Eureka!" has a mathematician received more publicity. PEOPLE magazine put him on its list of "the 25 most intriguing people of the year," the Gap asked him to model jeans, and Barbara Walters chased him for an interview. "Who's Barbara Walters?" asked the bookish Wiles, who had somehow gone through life without a television.

Hollywood didn't want to be left out, so filmmakers green-lighted Good Will Hunting, in which Matt Damon, who does watch TV, makes it sexy to be a number cruncher. (The sexy image was reversed--for the few bohemians who saw it--by the 1998 art-house flick [pi], the story of a psychotic, self-mutilating mathematician who discovers a very big number that holds the secrets of the universe.) Books on mathematics, such as Fermat's Enigma and A Beautiful Mind, the tale of a schizophrenic mathematical economist who wins the Nobel Prize, hit best-seller lists here and abroad. (I came to appreciate the eclectic taste of our friends across the pond when my book The Man Who Loved Only Numbers shared the London Times best-seller list with two titillating biographies of Princess Di.)

And although the Gap could not persuade Wiles to pose, other advertisers have succeeded in working mathematics into their marketing messages. Merrill Lynch hailed the Fermat proof in its "human achievement" ads; and Fendi, declaring in Pidgin English that "a woman is theorem which cannot be solved," introduced its Theorema line of enigmatic fragrance, body lotion and bath gel.

Hoping to cash in further on math mania, this publishing season brings not one but two books about zero. You have to admire the publishers for starting at the beginning of the number line--and setting themselves up for infinitely many predictable sequels--but is there really that much to say about nothing?

Amazingly, there is. Charles Seife's Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea (Viking) is the more accessible of the two. (The other book, The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero [Oxford], while philosophically deeper, is self-consciously obscure; its author, Robert Kaplan, writes in Zen koans and could have penned the Fendi tag line.)

Every schoolchild knows how "dangerous" zero can be. Just try dividing a number by zero and all hell breaks loose; indeed, zero was once scorned as the devil's work. It is such a familiar number today that it may be hard to believe there was a time--hundreds of years, actually--when our species counted and spoke but had no concept of zero. Seife and Kaplan both trace the history of naught, from its inception in Babylon around 300 B.C. through Athens, India and Europe later in the Middle Ages. It took Western mathematicians so long to accept zero because of their reluctance to treat nothing as something. Zero was equated with the abyss, the void, the unknown--all psychologically unpleasant subjects. No one wants to be a zero.

But as Freud could have said, sometimes a zero is just a zero and not infused with deeper meaning. What could be more transparent (even to the mathematically challenged) than the fact that 4-4=0? Zero is the definite answer to countless other such equations. Zero, though, can also be a tease, something that is sought after but always just beyond reach. Take the physicist's concept of absolute zero, the absurdly chilly -459.67[degrees]F. This would be the temperature of an object so still that even its subatomic particles ceased to jiggle. But modern physics teaches that the subatomic jiggling never stops, and so absolute zero can never be attained.

Zero shows its devilish side again in the famous Y2K problem and the academic debate over whether the third millennium begins Jan. 1, 2000, or Jan. 1, 2001. It all depends on whether the calendar had a year 0. (My solution is simple: Party twice!)

Seife tells stories of mathematicians involved in the denial or promotion of zero that are as incredible as the plot of [pi]. We learn that Pythagoras, the father of mathematical proof, was a vegetarian who would not eat beans because they reminded him of gonads. Legend has it that when his mathematical enemies set his house ablaze and chased the fire-fleeing Pythagoras to the edge of a bean field, the great mathematician declared that he would rather die than mingle with the beans. His pursuers happily slit his throat.

If the popularizers of mathematics continue to churn out such bizarre stories, math has a secure place in mass culture, able to compete with the wildest fare served up by Jerry Springer and the tabloids.

Paul Hoffman, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica, knows zero well, having received one in penmanship in second grade