Zero Got Muscle

Listen to Kate read: Zero Got Muscle

Where we learn that nothing is more powerful
than nothing.

This essay is not about the multi-centuries of history of the entity known as zero; others have written whole scores of essays and books about ye ol’ zero, so, yeah no, that’s not what’ll be revealed here.

This essay is about the power of nothing. I went on a little bit of a roller-coaster ride exploring zero, but it’s a tiny kid-friendly roller-coaster – just some lil’ dips here and there – and it’s pretty quick. I’m prone to motion sickness so…please don’t get nervous, don’t depart this ride, you’re safe with me.

First, here’s a snapshot bio of Zero: The Musical Numeral. It’s evident that what we know to be zero by the Babylonians, and then later by the Hindus in ancient India, was used as a placeholder to discern similar-looking yet numerically-different numbers. So, if each numeral in a multi-digit number were to be placed in individual columns, in our modern numeric system this would be illustrated so that a two digit (two-column) number like 35 is different from a three digit number like 305 which is different from 350. Etc, etc.

In current times, zero can be described as:

Also called nought, the symbol 0 representing
the absence of magnitude.
The cardinality of the empty set.

Harper Collins Math Dictionary

Ah, well that wording gives us some great insight into zero’s role in the whole numeric system. You see, the word cardinal is not used here as a noun in reference to a bird; rather, it is an adjective that’s the fancy name for a counting number meaning “of the greatest importance.”

Basically, zero is the very countingest of all the numbers. Well, that is when there’s no one else around, when it’s an empty set.

As I referenced in my essay about integers – My Ideal Beer Buddy Is An Integer – zero is a real rational whole number and it’s also the only integer that is neither positive nor negative. In that prior essay, I referenced the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of the word integer: A thing complete in itself – and then I immediately remarked “Gosh, I want to be an integer when I grow up.”

I gotta admit that I wrote that essay before I learned the whole truth about zero’s genesis. I had never really considered its role outside of arithmetic, hadn’t thought about zero’s essence also being associated with…well, nothing. As in not there, as in completely empty.

Thus our modern zero, inherited from the Indians, began as the visible race of something no longer there. Like [the number] one, zero probes the borderline between absence and presence. In early Indian mathematical treatises it is referred to as Sunya, meaning ‘void’, calling to mind the abyss, the ultimate unknowable, the pregnant ground of all being.

“Quadrivium” by Miranda Lundy & John Martineau
(pg. 56)

Dang, that’s some Big Talk – but nowwww we’re getting to the place where I’d like you to relax and take in the sights that show-off the ℤ that is zero and its…well, barrenness.

The quality of nothing… Add a number to another number, like a letter to another letter, and you create something new: a new number, a new sound. Only, if you add a number to zero nothing changes. The other number persists. …a multiplication by zero is just as mysterious. Multiply a number, any number – three, or four hundred, or 5,678 – by zero, by nothing, and the answer is zero.

“Thinking in Numbers” by Daniel Tammet
(pg. 49-50)

My oh my zero, I hadn’t realized how varied your powers can be in relation to others. And I greatly appreciate that the word quality – as opposed to the word quantity – is used here when talking about nothing. Yes, in order to determine the quality of something it then has to be in relation to the quality of something else – there’s still a need for some sort of measurement to be present – yet, here, using the word quality opens up a tiny allowance for subjectivity. The qualitative value I put on nothing isn’t necessarily the same qualitative value you’d put on it, you know?

Yet, most of my findings about zero were more likely to reference its relation and participation in defining the quantity of something.
Unless…well, unless it vanishes.

You see, vanishing has a specific meaning in mathematics, though it’s not really a stretch from its common definition.

A quantity which takes on the value zero is said to vanish. For emphasis, the term “vanish identically” is sometimes used instead, meaning the quantity in question does not merely vanish by all appearances, but is mathematically identically equal to zero.

Wolfram MathWorld

The word vanish has a mystery about it, no? We’ve heard that zero is associated with empty and with nothing, but vanishing? Like, that’s sorta magical, as in ✨{POOF}✨ – all gone. And if a quantity vanishes, that implies more than just an end state of its being; it says that whatever it used to be was in motion and that at some point – it vanished, and zero took its place. Also, when something vanishes, that’s sudden. It’s a now you see it now you don’t sort of thing.

Empty. Void. Nothing. And now ✨{POOF}✨ Vanish. I’m sensing a theme – you may have too – and it’s this last part that’ll really bring it home for ya.

Let’s delve into the modern day Oxford definition I mentioned earlier, that bit about “…absence of magnitude.” In mathematics, the word magnitude is all about the measurement of something in relation or in comparison to…zero. Hence, that’s then further confirmation that zero is…nothing, cuz that’s what you get when your measurement from one point doesn’t actually go anywhere.

And at first that information kinda bummed me out. It sounds so negative.

But then:

…we can hear the teacher saying, ‘It’s like eating the last cookie or using the last tissue.’ But this kind of activity seems to designate zero as a lack, or absence, rather than a generative concept. Instead of being the nothing that is arrived at after subtraction, zero can be the motor by which motion arises.

“Mathematics and the Body: Material Entanglements in the Classroom”
by Elizabeth De Freitas and Nathalie Sinclair

(pg. 54 – 55) 

This I like. This starts to bring some power back to zero – with an emphasis on the word start. What better place to start than at zero, at the very beginning (🎵 it’s a very good place to start 🎶).

We’re now completing that last loop-dee-doo
on this (kid-friendly) roller-coaster of exploration about zero.

I welcome you to the words of the Hindu holy man, Shankaracharya, with his explanation of zero:

The present mathematical system considers zero as a non-existent entity. We want to rectify this anomaly. Zero cannot be considered a non-existent entity. The same entity cannot be existing in one place and non-existing somewhere else…In Vedic literature zero is considered as the everlasting number. Zero cannot be annihilated or destroyed. It is the indestructible base. It is the basis of everything.

“Alex’s Adventures in Numberland” by Alex Bellos 
(pg. 138)

As Alex Bellos (the author of the book who heard these words in-person from Shankaracharya) explains, if you’re considering that the 0 in 10 to exist, but 0 on its own not to exist, then that’s a contradiction. Therefore – zero exists.

I wholeheartedly agree. And it’s quite powerful. There’s a power in nothingness, in emptiness, in the filling of a void and there’s even a power in vanishing ✨{POOF}✨. It’s the beginning line, it’s a start (or a re-start), it’s a place of possibilities and potential. There’s strength in this.

And that’s why Zero Got Muscle.

Thanks math, you’re the best.


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