Rarely mentioned, not even well understood by most of us, but zero keeps our world going!
Not zero emissions, zero interest rate, zero car accidents etc. Just zero, the number. ‘But zero is nothing, right?’ No no, not at all. Think about it. Nothing is emptiness while zero is very tangible: An exact number.
And numbers are driving our society: Who you are is a number, where you live is a number, just about any product on earth is a number, the size of your clothes, the diagnosis you get when you’re ill – made possible by the discovery of zero. Because zero made numbers scaleable. Which means large numbers can be represented in easily understandable and compact ways.
It may seem like a given, almost like gravity, but isn’t. For thousands of years there was no zero. You’ve seen roman numerals: XXVII is 27 which is bearable. MMMDCCXXIV is 3724 – it’s getting complicated and we haven’t tried to add two numbers yet. How could they run a ledger with this? Not to mention do math?
They did it but to a very limited degree for obvious reasons. The discovery of zero changed that, and created a revolution. In trade, science and eventually everything else, as I pointed out above. For example: This year is 2022 – an exact number because zero exists, the starting point defined. Without zero, how would you do it? The outside temperature as I write this is -7 degrees C. Which would not only be meaningless, it would be impossible without the zero. No zero, no negative numbers.
You’ve never thought about this, have you? For sure I hadn’t – until something happened some years ago. So allow me to backtrack a little.
Every once in a while – actually several times a week, sitting at my desk, I turn around towards my bookcase (yes, I do have plenty of physical books too), looking for inspiration. I pick a book more or less randomly, leaf through the pages, some times wondering why I kept this one, other times immediately remembering some of – or at least the idea of – the content.
Last week, this small modest looking book caught my attention. “The Nothing That Is” (1999). I immediately remembered what it was about and how fascinated I was by the story author Robert Kaplan tells in the book, subtitled “A Natural History of Zero”.
I pulled it out and started leafing through the pages – fast at first, then slower until I stopped, went back to the foreword and started reading from the beginning. Extremely fascinating even if I’d read it before, and – trust me – even if your level of math competence is basic algebra. You just skip the more math oriented chapters.
The thing is: Zero is actually an invention, and one of the greatest of all time. Understanding not only the concept and its importance but the history, builds understanding about the world and ourselves and how we got here.
On the back cover of the book, a math professor from Harvard describes the book like this:
“Robert Kaplan’s The Nothing That Is is a magnificent meditation on the concept of zero, and, therefore, on everything. His passionate writing brings us to the Mayans, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Indians, the Arabs and the early moderns as they worked towards, or from, an understanding of zero. Reading Kaplan, we experience their striving and its glory, for ourselves.”
200 small pages that are guaranteed to leave you fascinated, sometimes awestruck and often inspired. Like this quote from the book:
Look at zero and you see nothing. Look through it and you see the world.”
If the holiday season leaves you some extra time for reading, this is quite possibly one of the most mindset-forming inspiration available. Remember: Knowledge is vital, knowledge without understanding is useless!