Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Saved By Zero

Too many of us take nothing for granted. Or, more accurately, too many of us take “zero” for granted. Have you ever thought about how strange a concept zero is?

The ancient Greeks weren’t even sure if zero should be considered a number. Indeed, they struggled with the question: “how can nothing be something?” Apparently, they never heard of the Twinkie. By 130 AD, however, Ptolemy was using a small circle with a long overbar as a symbol for zero, and he used it as a number. . . the first recorded use of zero as a number.

Before that, the Mayans used zero, as did the Chinese, though it’s not clear if they used it as a mathematical number or just as a placeholder: “TBD.”

During the Medieval period, scholars argued about the religious implications of zero and the vacuum it represented. If nothing falls in the forest, is it sacrilegious?

India is where zero first because a practical number. Around the 9th century, no doubt in response to a customer service call, Indian scholars began using zero to carry out mathematical calculations. This would eventually make its way to Europe where nothing would take root.

So why is nothing important? Well, for starters, from a practical standpoint, without zero, we wouldn’t have modern engineering and science. That means no toasters, no cars, no missiles. Football scores would need to change and fashion models would have to wear an oh-so-fat size one. Very sad.

But more importantly, zero helps us grasp the universe. Without zero, we truly have no concept of nothing. We have a concept of absence, but not of nothing. In other words, we could understand that we have no beatles, but we could not understand that there are no beatles. This makes me wonder how different our world would be if we had no real concept of nothing?

But then, I wonder if we really understand nothing? Can you truly imagine nothing, or do you think of something only with less in it? Maybe zero is all we have; maybe zero represents an abstract thought that we simply can’t conceptualize in any other way?

Maybe we don’t know nothing after all?


Tennessee Jed said...

I definitely think of zero merely as a counting device (sic) the absence of something rather than a total void. It is absolutely understandable to me only with prior knowledge of what is being counted. You can understand zero eggs in the refrigerator, but only if you know what eggs are can it be meaningful.

As they say, I think therefore I am. You would have to get outside yourself to understand what the world would be like without you. Nice post! :)

P0nder0sa said...


AndrewPrice said...

Absolutely true Jed, and that was the problem in Descartes "I think, therefore I am" formula -- it assumed existence.

I don't know if we can truly conceive of nothing (except in the mathematical sense of zero). I think we tend to see absence -- as you say, we need to know what something is before we can understand its nonexistence, which of course means it exists and therefore we can't really conceive of it's nonexistence.


I wonder what this means though, that we can understand the concept of zero but not visualize it except in the abstract?

Perhaps that tell us where the gap is in our brains that would open up the mysteries of the universe to us?

AndrewPrice said...

Ponderosa, LOL! Nice response! And nice touch with the 0s.

rlaWTX said...

Nothing has to a comparative concept, doesn't it? Because if you have nothing, it's irrelevant - unless somewhere else there is something to be had. And as soon as you add the what you have nothing of it's comparative. If you have 0 eggs: [1] somewhere there ARE numbers of eggs and [2] you must have numbers of something else instead of eggs. So zero must be an abstract, comparative space holder as opposed to an entity of itself.
I think that's why math class doesn't bother withe the philopophical version of zero and sticks to the mathmatical zero.

And on the same lines, how can you have a negative something? If you have negative what you really have is nothing, not s less than nothingness. Only in the abstract can you have less than nothing. Even if you owe money to someone, you still have nothing (or not enough of something to fulfill the debt) - otherwise you'd give it to them. But in the abstract, you can owe the future somethings that you don't have.

Ok - going to step away from the keyboard... deep breath...

(interesting, mind-provoking column!)

rlaWTX said...

(yeah, published without spell checking...)

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, Thanks!

Your comment is making my head spin! LOL!

Theoretically, there can be a nothing -- at least one. We are told that the universe has a boundary. And since it has location, it stands to reason that there is a beyond the universe, and that (we are told) is nothing. . . real nothing (not just absence).

Now, it's possible this is wrong. In fact, it's possible that there really is no such thing as genuine nothing, just absence. And if that's the case, then maybe our understanding of the universe is wrong? And maybe zero is a mistake -- a "best guess" for something that we don't understand yet?

It would be pretty cool to know the answers to these questions!

You're right about negative numbers too. To the extent they represent simply a transaction, "to take away from" then I think they make sense. But standing on their own, how can there be a "reality debt," i.e. how can there be something that represents a less than nothings state?

This is fun stuff, but very taxing on the old noggin!

Ponderosa said...

In The Dead Poets Society Robin Williams (as Mr. Keating) and the students are in the courtyard.
Mr. Keating tells his young charges to find their own express themselves.

All the students save one start walking in some odd or exaggerated manner.

The one student says he is "exercising his right not to walk".

Or more likely - I have no will-power today and just could not resist.

AndrewPrice said...

Ponderosa, No problem with that -- we all have a right to exercise our rights not to walk! Besides, we're Americans. . . we drive! ;-)

Notawonk said...

are you trying to 'splode mah head?! it's been a long-ass day and mommy needs her pills, or a drank, either way i neeeeeed it. not really, i just want it. oy. back to the minefields.

AndrewPrice said...

Sorry about your head Patti. This is what happens when my mind gets away from me -- it comes back with deep thoughts without answers.

StanH said...

Without zero we wouldn’t have the perfect name for our Barry, as well. Barry = Zero!

BevfromNYC said...

Philisophically speaking, wouldn't one have to have a need, want, or desire something to determine "zero" or nothingness.

"I need/want/desire eggs, BUT I have zero eggs."

"I have zero eggs. I want/need/desire your eggs. Now YOU have zero eggs."

Ergo, "Zero" makes the world go 'round as is indicated by the it's symbol (0)! I think I just solved the secret of the universe! Somebody call Dan Brown, quick!

I'm just makin' this up as I go along...I'm with's makin' my 'splode too and a strange desire for eggnog now...

Ponderosa said...

Have you read The Black Swan by Taleb?

I've only finished Part I - so I still only have a surface level understanding but so far it is fascinating.

It is a discussion of unknown unknowns, randomness and anti-knowledge.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, That's true. Plus sports scores would need to change. And of course, we couldn't track Pelosi's popularity in the rest of the country! :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, That could be true, but there is one problem with that, that assumes that the state of nothing depends on humans. I'm talking about an actual nothing, i.e. nothingness.

Eggnog sounds good! :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Ponderosa, I have not read it, but it sounds interesting, and it's an interesting premise. It seems to run counter to the idea pushed by most historians that history is the result of mass movements that build over time -- something I don't actually subscribe to.

If it's good, let us know!

Ed said...

I feel dizzy! :D Great song too!

darski said...

haven't done the research but I was told (grade nine math class) that the Egyptians invented the zero numeral. This would of course be at a time when they were just Egyptians and not Mohammedans so it won't help NASA in its mission. LoL

Of course I attended gr.9 math just a couple of years after the Egyptian invention of zero

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I'm a big fan of The Fixx. I'm glad you caught that!

The spinning feeling passes, just keep thinking!

AndrewPrice said...

darksi, the Egyptians came late to the game. The Chinese, Indians. Mayans and Greeks were way ahead of them.

BevfromNYC said...

Okay, then Andrew, but it does not necessarily depend on humans! Nature has "zero" too which is why it is still the resolution to secret of the universe. Let's say I'm a squirrel.

"I need/want/desire ACORNS to store in the knot in my tree for the winter, BUT I have zero ACORNS."

"I have zero ACORNS. I want/need/desire the other squirrels' ACORNS and take same to store in the knot in my tree for winter. Now the other squirrels have zero ACORNS."

FYI - I verified this concept with the squirrels in the park and they concur with my findings...

You can only have nothingness in the known universe, but nothingness cannot be absolute.

CrispyRice said...

But the real question is, how does this help the zero in my checking account?? *sigh*

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, Well, if the squirrels agree, then I stand corrected! LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, It means that the zero is an illusion. . . go ahead and spend! :-)

rlaWTX said...


AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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