Sunday, January 6, 2013

Not for nothing

It turns out that zero is a relative newcomer to the land of numbers. Although the Sumerians got us started with counting a good six thousand years ago or so, zero didn't have a name and a function until much later, when it seems to have been discovered by an Indian religious philosopher in the early seventh eighth century. It was another five hundred years before those benighted Europeans started to make use of it -- which could, but probably does not, explain why, to this day, the "first floor" of an English building is on the second floor.

As I have clearly demonstrated, I'm no math whiz, but even I can see that trying to make numbers work without zero is a fool's game. Algebra, calculus, set theory and all sorts of nifty mathematical hi-jinks can't be undertaken without the useful little oval. So I have nothing at all against zero qua zero. Really I don't. My complaint arises when zero, as it so often does these days, makes itself the enemy of liberty and common sense (or any sense at all).

Zero is what leads to honor an student being suspended and labelled a terrorist, when she pointed "finger gun" during a discussion of detective fiction, even though assault finger bans never seem to work. Consider that even six-year-olds are evidently able to get hold of finger guns, even if they are themselves promptly suspended.

Zero, is bludgeon in the hands of censors who, like the fictional Matthew Harrison Brady, do not think about things they do not think about, and sanctimoniously punish any student who dares to do otherwise.

Zero is the portal through which meddlesome, officious do-gooders enter a private home and, upon finding there such dangerous and exotic precursors as batteries and household cleansers, do not merely suspend the student who dared to draw forbidden images. No, such academic punition, no longer new, is evidently insufficiently severe to satisfy zero, which now demands such a scribbler be arrested.

Zero turns out to have a complex, dramatic history. It seems the notion of nothing took a while for the human mind to codify and for human society to accept, so that in some times and places, the very idea of zero was considered dangerous.

Considering the use to which zero is routinely put these days, I cannot disagree.

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