April 2001


By John D. Barrow
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'He's got plenty of nothing / Because it's not there' might be reason enough to write a book about Nothing, John D. Barrow says, especially if the author has already written a book about Everything. Barrow, a professor of mathematical sciences at Cambridge University, is referring to his earlier book, Theories of Everything, and to his latest, The Book of Nothing: Vacuums, Voids, and the Latest Ideas About the Origins of the Universe. The man gets around, and he loves outrageous topics. Few nonfiction writers seem to enjoy themselves more.

The Book of Nothing is stuffed with wonderful stories. Barrow begins with conceptions of nothingness from around the world and throughout history. Rooted in the paradox-rich soil of philosophy and religion, the concept of nothing has blossomed into many strange ideas, and apparently Barrow is familiar with all of them. Naturally he explores the invention of zero; the evolution of words to express this mathematical (and philosophical) concept; and the religious, especially Christian, opposition to the idea. He also clearly explains the nature and persistence of vacuums; zero-point energy and other conundrums of physics; and many of the logical contradictions that turn out not to be contradictions at all.

Never one to resist wordplay, the author of Pi in the Sky has a field day with the concept of nothing. This feast of clear thinking and fine writing is garnished with wonderful quotations. From Al Jolson's You ain't seen nothin' yet to St. Paul and, inevitably, the absurdity-surrounded Alice, Barrow loves paradox, and revels in quotations such as the immortal line by Epicurus, Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.

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