The Power of Nothing, by Adela Crandell

Maybe it’s because of all those Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales ads. Or Cyber-Monday e-mails for 70% off all my purchases. Maybe it’s just my long commute and plenty of time to let my mind wander. Maybe my friend Bob is right, I have a mind stuck in beta wave mode. Anyways, I’ve been pondering zero lately. Yes, zero, as in 0, nothing, zed, nil, nada, zilch. Without zero, our lives would be sooo different. No 70% discount for one thing.

Counting seems natural. We must keep track of things: children, sheep, shoes, pennies, friends, enemies… If I have none of those, well, life is simple; nothing to keep track of, nothing to count. Counting starts with 1, not 0. We take zero for granted, but it wasn’t always so, especially in the western world. Stop and think a moment about trying to calculate that 70% sale using Roman numerals. Next to impossible. Wait, not next to. Impossible.

Zero, nil, evil by ancient Greeks and Romans considered the void evil.  Pythagorus, Aristotle, and a bunch of other respected philosopher/scientists of the time, did their thinking and hypothesizing without the benefit of zero. Yes, zero was already around in Babylonia, but trying to introduce it into the philosophical, mystical world of mathematics, wreaked havoc.

Archimedes came up with many mathematical theories. For example: any number added to itself, results in a bigger and bigger number:

1+1=2, 2+2=4, 4+4=8 and so on.
0+0=0, no matter how many times you add zero, you still get nothing.

More of the same with multiplication, and don’t get me started with division, anything divided by 0 is nonsense.

This may seem like a bunch of silliness, but these ancients believed mathematics was a holy endeavor. Pythagoras believed in the sacredness of geometry: the pyramid, the cube, etc. all equal sided figures, all divine. He believed in “All is number” or “God is number.” Too bad he dismissed the void, or zero as evil, as something that defies nature. He could have invented the computer, which is essentially based on nothing but ones and zeros. Or at least he could have invented accounting or statistical analysis.

Still, counting, sans zero, was good for conquistadors. Keeping track of the spoils of battle and the slaves filling Nero’s bathtub is important stuff. A mind intent on acquiring more stuff has no need for the zero. That is unless you must keep track of a mind-boggling amount of stuff, like flowers in the garden or the path to Nirvana.

According to my friend, Marty, the zero is the underpinning of Western civilization’s mistrust of the east. The people in the east had the zero. The Roman Empire recognized the superior accounting ability of the conquered people in the east, and set their new slaves straight to work accounting for things, never dirtying their godly Roman hands with the evil zero, and never quite understanding the ‘new math.’ Marty read all this in a book years ago. It’s not his own theory, and I can’t find Marty or the book, so I am unable to verify the story. That said, it wouldn’t be the last time the one with the power bullied the guy with the smarts.

Meanwhile, across the globe, the Mayans invented zero on their own, and calculated among other things, the end of the world. Turns out that will be here in about a month, or a year and a month, depending on whose modern calculations you trust.

That 70% off on-line sale is looking better every minute. But do I really need another pair of shoes when I meet my maker at the end of the month? Well, a girl’s gotta look her best in every situation.

Zero my hero.  You guessed it, I’m more math geek than fashionista.

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