Mathematician and author Amir Aczel went on a years-long odyssey to find the origin of the number zero. His search took him across the globe, deep into India and the jungles of Cambodia. He’s written a new book, published just this month, about his search, called “Finding Zero: A Mathematician’s Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers.” This week I had a chance to ask him what inspired this unique journey.

Why the need to find zero? 

Four Questions with Amir Aczel, Mathematician and Author
Photo credit: Debra Gross Aczel

It was an obsession of mine. I knew for many years there was an artifact—K-127—that had been found in the 1800s, and the first time anything about that artifact was published was by the archaeologist Georges Cœdès in 1931. It proved that zero was of Eastern origin. Nothing had been written about this for the past 80 years. Zero does appear in Mayan calendars, but it remained exclusively in Mesoamerican calendars. This artifact that I was interested in finding was from 683 A.D., and it seemed to no longer be around. The fact that it was lost was bothersome to me. But just yesterday I received an email from Phnom Penh from the Ministry of Culture, who just saw the piece and agreed it belongs in a museum. They are arranging for an international Zero Fest in Cambodia a year from now.

My sister in Israel just died on Oct. 17. She played a huge role in my life and was a big part of the book. She was obsessed with the Khmer Rouge. Perhaps there was a connection with my grandmother and Auschwitz. My search for K-127 in Cambodia was inspired by her.

The book is called “Finding Zero,” so I know I’m not spoiling it by asking you where you found it.

It was a lot of detective work for five years. I’ve written other books in between. I know zero had been found in Cambodia but disappeared in the Khmer Rouge. As a lot of people know, Pol Pot went into the jungle and disappeared, but there was a resurgence in the 1990s. They were a lot like the Taliban as they used the same methods—deliberately destroying statues.

I had tried to get publishers interested. Then I got a grant from the Sloan Foundation, and that changed my life. My grant application was to go and find it. I had a few lucky breaks along the way, like meeting the British ex-pat Andy Brouwer, who eventually helped me reach the Deputy Minister of Fine Art Hab Touch. And Hab Touch just made a phone call. Then I got in to search its last known location. This museum where I thought it might be had become a junkyard—really a garbage dump—and it wasn’t there anymore. And then, on Jan. 2, 2013, I found it. I finally found it. It was intact. The top was broken, but still, I found it. And that was it.

Fifteen years ago you wrote a book about infinity and Aleph. Is it just a coincidence that these two books about your number quests have their basis in religion?

Four Questions with Amir Aczel, Mathematician and AuthorI’ve also written a book about science and religion, so these two have a thread in my thinking. I wrote a book called “The Jesuit and the Skull: Teilhard de Chardin, Evolution, and the Search for Peking Man,” which is being made into a movie. I got a lot into science and religion in that one. Descartes also delved into science, religion and math. With “The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity” I tried to draw Kabbalah to mathematics. And Kant spoke the same way. The use of Aleph as infinity and mathematics is not clear; it’s kind of murky.

This book really reminded me of an Indiana Jones-type adventure. You even have a situation in the book that could be ripped from the movie screen. Who would play you if they made this into a movie?

Hmm…Daniel Day Lewis, maybe? My other book that was bought that is being made into a movie will feature Jude Law. But I think my favorite is still Harrison Ford. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is still my favorite. I watched it a few times during my search.

Four Questions with Amir Aczel, Mathematician and AuthorFour questions is a weekly interview column featuring interesting people connected with the Greater Boston Jewish community. Find past columns here. Have an idea of someone we should interview? Email Molly!

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