Wednesday, January 27, 2010

All About Nothing

Concept and illustrations by Nina Sabnani
Written by Deeya Nayar
Tulika Publishers
Ages 5+

You must have studied the Roman numeral system at some point in school. The sheer number of rules just for writing down numbers is quite daunting. Just to refresh your memory - I did while doing 3rd grade Math with my daughter, here are some:

(I had even forgotten the symbols - L is 50, C is 100, D is 500 and M is 1000)
You cannot repeat V, D and L.
X, C and D cannot be repeated more than thrice.
If a smaller numeral is placed before a larger one you have to subtract it. You cannot however subtract V, D and L in this manner. You can subtract I from V and X only, X from L and C only and C from D and M only.
If a smaller numeral is placed after a numeral, add it.
If a smaller numeral is placed between two larger ones, subtract it from the one after it.

For example, 3999 would be MMMCMXCIX.

When we get to addition and subtraction and higher operations, it begins to get really complicated.

Why the need for so many rules you ask?

Mainly because the concept of place values did not exist. This idea is perhaps the most brilliant thing about the Hindu-Arabic system that we now use (ie 0-9 digits). Peel away a layer from this and you bump into that superstar to whom a lot of intellectual progress can be attributed to, that most perfect shape - the little circle. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Mister Zero! All About Nothing by Nina Sabnani is about this hero who simplifies our lives much more than we realise.

Muchu is a diamond trader who lived in ancient India. One day he is embroiled in a particularly tricky calculation and goes to bed with his head still spinning. In the morning, he notices a sunbeam making a circular pattern on one of his scrolls. This triggers a thought process which leads to his discovering the concept of shunya or zero.

This story was originally an animation film. It is fictional but is based on actual research. Though the recommended age group is 5+, I think it will appeal to folks of all ages. Sabnani has authentically re-created the world at the time around which the concept was discovered. She brings in a philosophical twist by quoting a Sanskrit shloka about poorNa or whole and weaves it into the story beautifully by relating it to shunya or empty. The pages have been given a manuscript-like background, the colours are rich and earthy and the illustrations simply transport you back in time.

Like my favourite Math teacher used to say, the beauty of genius lies in its simplicity. Once you get it, you wonder why no one thought of it earlier and how folks did without it before. All About Nothing tells you this about zero and its importance in a most delightful manner.

Picture Courtesy


Meera Sriram said...

Sounds very interesting! Thanks Chox.

Vibha said...

Gosh! so many rules, I don't remember having ever done it even during the school years. That phase is wiped out from memory completely.
Must be an interesting read - story of magic "Zero".

Thanks CB.

sandhya said...

In music there is something called a cresendo. I had a similar feeling while reading this post. Your explanation of the Roman system builds up one's curiosity to see exactly where this leads to. I like the way you have explained the two concepts and juxtaposed them to show exactly how the zero makes it so simple. Truly a hero. Must look up this book.

Poppy said...

Sounds fab! I am partial to books that simplify Math or Science for kids - so I'm definitely picking this up!

ranjani.sathish said...

I have chanced upon this book numerous times in the book store..but have never leafed thru it. Your review has piqued my interest and I will check it out the next time I sight it :-)

Anusha said...

I loved your take on this.
I was fascinated when I first read All About Nothing, about how the awesome tie-in with spirituality, philosophy and math. love, love the depth in the words - "full, but empty, like space."

Artnavy said...

like explaining the sound of silence- will wait a while to get this for anush and myself

Artnavy said...

like explaining the sound of silence- will wait a while to get this for anush and myself

Choxbox said...

Meera/Ranjani: It is, do check it out.

Vibha: I dont think we did it in as much detail as they do these days. And I think the link between the two systems leading to the fact that it was the discovery (or invention?) of the zero that made it possible for maths to develop to where it did and how it led to human progress etc - that is what should be highlighted - otherwise no point in learning all those rules..
Which is why I love this book! Ties in beautifully with what I said above.

Sandhya: Thanks for that! Do look it up. Bet A will enjoy it.

Poppy: Same here! I think our kids are lucky - there is so much more around now to make things interesting.

Art: Yeah you might want to wait a bit.

K's mom: Totally!
The math teacher I mention would always bring in the connection between math and spirituality. Math was his religion. He'd often quote anecdotes from Ramanujan's life and how math just came to him, as if he was blessed by a special god.

Sheela said...

Sounds like an intersting book, Chox... Zero is a beautiful concept. So right, your math teacher was "the beauty of genius lies in its simplicity"... heard the same thing, from my Physics teacher :)

Aside: I am curious about "This story was originally an animation film." Any idea if it is still around to take a look?

There were some lovely animated short films on Door Darshan when i was little - one that comes to mind right away is about people throwing garbage - a guy walking by, people make their houses sparkling and dump the trash outside... some fall on him, he opens a umbrella... anyway, just wondered about this original animated fiction regarding zero...

Choxbox said...

Sheela: Thanks, do check this book out, bet you'll love it.
And I also wondered about the animation film. Searched for it online but can't figure out how/where to access it.
As for animation films - remember 'ek chidiya anek chidiya' and such? My kids love that one!

Praba Ram said...

Hi Chox,

Always enjoyed your history picks. This one in particular about the history behind Mister.Zero is awesome indeed! (hey, wouldnt that be a neat title for a bollywood movie, keeping in line with the trend? :-))

Sheela said...

oh yes, 'ek chidiya anek chidiyan' was one of my faves too :) I think some of the School House Rock animated episodes were wonderful here - esp., I'm Just A Bill and Conjunction Junction are stuck in my mind - AV medium has its power sometimes!

Choxbox said...

P: Thanks! Yes, that sounds like a neat Bollywood blockbuster!

Sheela: You bet it does - as long as it does not overtake everything else. A couple of other awesome animation clips - Blue and Printed Rainbow by Gitanjali Rao.

Praba Ram said...

on the av talk, one silent movie from doordarshan years, stuck in my head involves this fire safety act - a clown like figure dressed in b/w tights, painted face (used to scare me a bit)...enacts what's safe and what's not. Remember that one? Theatrical.

Sheels, I do remember all the ones you've mentioned! gosh...nostalgia triggers!:)

Julia Dutta said...

How does one buy the book?

Choxbox said...

Julia: Via their website here -

Mail or call - they'll help out.

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