The Case of the Killer Book

Scott Luddin

If it was Verro, then perhaps De Nihil Natura, his odd little book immolated in the flames of religious intolerance, was onto something highly original and centuries ahead of its time.

What is nothing? A simple question, but without a simple answer, or possibly no answer at all. In a way, it’s an oxymoron: a word for some-thing that doesn’t exist, including itself. There’s a distinct whiff of the absurd about it—and also something scary: the Nothing at the end of the road. Nothing is the ultimate chimera—there and not there at the same time. But it’s more than all that. As it turns out, if you really want to get to the heart of the matter of Everything, then beginning with Nothing is a good place to start.


It’s only fairly recently that we’ve begun to properly understand Nothing. Before that, Nothing was simply the opposite of Something. There wasn’t even a number for it because our mathematics was built upon the work of the Nothing-hating Greeks who thought it was irrelevant. In India, however, Nothing was hugely important. It was even worshipped, a central concept in Hinduism. As result, they had a character for it in their number system—zero.


This is not to say that the Indians understood the full implications of zero. It was mostly an enigma, there by necessity and useful but troublesome, especially if you tried to divide by it. Their greatest mathematician, Brahmagupta, threw up his hands and simply said it couldn’t be done. It took another Indian mathematician, Bhaskara, in the twelfth century, to figure it out. Yes, you could divide by zero, he said, and the result was always the same. Divide any number by zero and the result is infinity. It made perfect sense for Bhaskara because infinity is also Nothing—the void, and the void is God (personified as Shiva), who in Hindu theology is equal parts creation and destruction, a being eternal and unchanging—something and nothing at the same time.


By the sixteenth century in Europe, zero was well established in both mathematics and religion. The Church, citing the book of Genesis, appreciated the fact that zero was the same void out of which Yahweh created the universe—just like Shiva had. By the seventeenth century, Newton and Leibnitz were using zero to invent calculus. At about the same time in Italy, the mathematician, Ludovico Verro (1624-1695), published an odd little book called De Nihil Natura (“On the Nature of Nothing”). The book, his last, was radically different from his previous twelve works and something of an anomaly since it dealt with zero in a way no one had ever seen before, using an idiosyncratic notational system that reminded some readers of symbols used in the Kabbala and alchemy.


And that is as much we know about it. Soon enough, the book came to the attention of Cardinal Peccatori of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Despite the fact that it was written by a highly esteemed mathematician, Peccatori denounced the book as wicked, saying it advocated sorcery. The denunciation came as no surprise since Peccatori was already suspicious of calculus and still stubbornly held to the belief that the Church had erred in not burning Galileo at the stake. “What is science?” he liked to say, “but the lies Satan whispers in our ears.”


Verro, a Florentine, was called to Rome to explain himself before the Holy Inquisition and say why his book should not be banned. But he never appeared. As he was about to leave, he suddenly collapsed and died. His wife later related that just before he was stricken, he had muttered, “maladetto.” When informed of what had happened, Cardinal Peccatori shook his head and famously said, “struck down by the man’s own book.”


Verro and his wicked book became the talk of Rome and Florence. Many took the Cardinal’s words literally. Before long, there were reports of suicides and the untimely deaths of people who had read De Nihil Natura. The book began to be called il libro maladetto (“the cursed book”) or il libro infestato (“the haunted book”). De Nihil was promptly put on the Index of Prohibited Books. Sermons warned against reading it. Even possessing it was judged to be a mortal sin. Finally in 1700, the Church ordered all copies to be burned. The auto-da-fé was held in Florence in the Piazza della Signoria, the main square of the city.


A diligent effort had been made to hunt down as many copies of the book as possible. There’s no record of how many had been found and burned, but the confiscation must have been successful. To date none is known to exist. Nevertheless De Nihil wasn’t totally lost. Sometime in the early 1740s, the first chapter turned up in England. It was said that the pages had been torn out of one of the books just before it was cast into the flames. In time, these torn-out pages were also lost, but not before they were translated into English and published as a pamphlet. References to the pamphlet appear in the correspondence, journals, and diaries of several prominent writers of the time. It was mentioned in a joking way as a literary curse—that an idea can be physically deadly in the same way that a snake bite can. “I have read the thing,” Samuel Johnson said, according to Boswell, “and have not the slightest desire to fling myself from London Bridge, but I should readily admit I hardly understood a word of it.”


References to the pamphlet petered out. The lore attached to it was forgotten. Copies of it disappeared and went extinct. Or so it was thought. In 2014 a Verro pamphlet turned up, hidden in the pages of a world atlas that was once part of the library of George Berkeley. One of the literary giants of the eighteenth century, Bishop Berkeley, as he was known, was famous as a philosopher for arguing that the objects of the material world have no tangible reality but are simply ideas in our heads.


We know Berkeley read the pamphlet because he mentioned it in a letter to a friend, calling it “balderdash and gibberish.” No doubt he was interested in zero because of his disagreement with Newton over Newton’s use of zero in calculus. Not long after Berkeley received his friend’s letter, he asked his daughter to read to him—something she often did. He was 68 years old and his declining eyesight made reading difficult. It’s not known exactly what she read, but right in the middle of it, Berkeley died. Although his biographers discount it as apocryphal, they never fail to mention that Berkeley’s death is often associated with what came to be known as The Verronian Curse.


These days the pamphlet and The Verronian Curse have long been forgotten, but not entirely. Recently at an auction in London, I was able to purchase the only extant copy of the Verro pamphlet. I wasn’t the only bidder, and it didn’t come cheap!


After I studied the pamphlet—and survived—I couldn’t understand why it had been met with such perplexity since the content isn’t especially abstruse. The more closely I studied it, the more it seemed that this supposed fragment of a famous lost book might actually be a parody or satire—something that could have been easily missed by someone illiterate in math or science. With De Nihil Natura being unavailable, all we have are Verro’s twelve books of dense philosophical reasoning, and those tomes bear no resemblance to the pamphlet. Either Verro’s book was an outlier in terms of this other books, or the pamphlet was cooked up by someone else—an Englishman, perhaps, who had heard about De Nihil and the stories of a surviving chapter, and decided to pull off a mischievous literary heist.


Today, we know (or think we know) a great deal about zero, infinity, and Nothing. Remarkably, these contemporary concepts are reflected (although dimly) in the Verro pamphlet. We commonly think of space as a vacuum. It’s not. In fact it’s as full as it possibly can be—everywhere, whether at the furthest reach of the universe or at the end of your nose. Even absent all forms of matter and radiation, there is still, at bottom, the quantum vacuum, a Nothing where virtual particles continually pop in and out of existence—quantum fluctuations that are the source of an infinite amount of energy. It’s almost magic: literally something coming from Nothing, the ultimate plenitude.

The upshot: Nothing does not exist.


The Verro pamphlet seems to be saying nearly the same thing. On the last page, we have this:


If we should but even briefly reflect upon this abstruse Scheme, we must inevitably come to conclude that the Ground of all Being, viz., that which is infinite in Time, Place and Potentiality, and which is not further reducible, must be of the simplest Composition, perchance comprized of ephemeral Specks so infinitesimal as to scarcely exist at all, and differentiated into no more than two kinds, as the Day is so differentiated unto light and dark, as Humanity unto men and women, and as the Person unto body and soul, that upon their haphazard Confrontations comes a spark that ignites a Universe into being.


Either the anonymous author of the pamphlet came up with this as an absurd joke, or it was Ludovico Verro himself, making a serious statement about the fundamental nature of reality. It’s impossible to say. If it was Verro, then perhaps De Nihil Natura, his odd little book immolated in the flames of religious intolerance, was onto something highly original and centuries ahead of its time. And so it wouldn't have been sorcery that so disturbed Cardinal Peccatori, but a truth so abhorrent that it made everything else pointless.