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NOTHING THAT IS: A NATURAL HISTORY OF ZERO, THE (pb)2000
Author: ROBERT D. KAPLAN
ISBN: 0140279431
Year: 2000
Publisher: PENGUIN BOOKS LIMITED (UK)
Category: MATHEMATICS
Edition: 1
Format: Paperback
Language: English
 ABOUT THE TITLE
The 'invention' of zero made arithmetic infinitely easier - try doing division in Roman numerals - and now forms part of the binary code which powers all our calculators, computers, telephones and televisions. Robert Kaplan traces 'the nothing that is' back to its origins as two wedges pressed into a wet lump of Sumerian clay. He explores the contributions of Greeks, Mayans, Hindus and humanists, and shows how zero opened the door to the strange complexities of irrational, infinitesimal and imaginary numbers. 'If you look at zero,' he writes, 'you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the world.' His dazzling account uncovers one of the great revolutions in human thought.

Zero is neither negative nor positive, but the narrowest of no-man's lands between those two kingdoms. Yet our analogy-driven minds, ever eager to read expressions on neutral faces, seize on its emptiness and make out powers and portents there. Let's ask first what expressions they find when expecting the worst - then in the next chapter how this same emptiness can appear benign.
You saw how, in the Middle Ages, zero was taken as Devil's work or the Devil himself, the great canceller of meaning. How easy to think of yourself dismissed as a good-for-nothing, a no-account. The Sultan Abdul Hamid the Second, perpetrator of the terrible nineteenth-century Armenian massacres, had his censors, they say, remove any reference to H20 from chemistry books entering his empire, convinced that the symbol stood for 'Hamid the Second is Nothing!' How easy still to dismiss those we reject as mere zeroes, sinks of energy, black holes in which all that matters, the singular and the memory of the singular, disappear without a trace.
It is as if that hollow oval stood for anonymity, mirroring our fear of making no difference to others - to anyone - to the world: ' ... to pass beyond and leave no lasting trace,' wrote William McFee in Casuals of the Sea (which left little enough trace itself; for me, only the colours that shimmered in the beveled glass of his school's specimen case).
How many zeroes it turns out you've met and even kidded around with: those faces from old yearbooks you now can't put a name to, those names in old address-books that summon no features. They made up the crowd, into which sometimes you yourself loved to plunge as a mere spectator - until the chilling thought came of your own name as unrecognizable in tattered address-books lying in basement drawers.
To live as a zero: the superfluous man, the man without qualities, the person who, like Henry James's John Marcher, finds out only too late that the beast in his jungle was that there was no beast, no response to passion: this figure haunts our fiction and our fact, the salaryman of Japanese society, the company man, the fungible folk of our office culture, who retreat to virtual reality games at home. The worst of it is that, unlike Marcher, most never awake to the truth that they haven't lived.
This was le néant, the nothingness at the heart of Existentialism: the rare recognition of which brought nausea - and so a moment in which to choose what you would be (since all choices, being choices, were equally unnecessitated, equally arbitrary, equally without prior meaning). You began to exist with this random choice, embraced as random, and in living it out you made your essence: Sartre's neat reversal of the Thomistic formula that essence precedes existence. So an arbitrary digit slipped in front of a string of zeroes creates value where none had been. But Sartre died and his authenticity died soon after, as pipe and scarf and the Deux Magots came to seem the self-publicising tactics of a literary man. The fashion for Existentialism passed, preserved now only in successive waves of adolescence, before the getting and the spending set in.
At least those who haven't awoken are lost in their dreams. There is a far more fearsome embodiment of zero: the guilt-ridden certainty of one's own utter worthlessness. The self-damned knew even in childhood the etymology of their naughtiness: it derived from being nought. The least whispered nuance of scorn singled them out; they heard themselves as Hamlet, asking what they should do, crawling between earth and heaven. When Donne called man that Nothing, infinitely less than a mathematical point, than an imaginary Atome, it was to each of them he spoke, cut off on their islands. But what were pulpit thunders to the silent certainties, in the dark night of the soul, that zero was only the beginning of endless negation?
Over this nether millstone grinds another in contrary motion: detest your self as you may, how devastating to think of losing it. By an act of mind no logic can sanction yet fantasy distills, you see the world as it would be without your presence to see it, and despair as John Bunyan did:
"... I was more loathsome in my own eyes than was a toad... I was both a burden and a terror to myself: nor did I ever so know, as now, what it was to be weary of my life, and yet afraid to die.
How could your name possibly be writ in water, as Keats, dying, said of his? How could its syllables ever weaken away in the on-going hum of things? A book on the latest cyberspace cryptography tells us that it:
"Is about submerging a conversation in a flow of noise so that no one can know if a conversation exists at all. It is about taking your being [and] dissolving it into nothingness..."
Of course the author continues:
"... and then pulling it out of the nothingness so it can live again."
How can we be certain this promise will be kept? Have you never lost for good a message on your e-mail? Animula vagula blandula, the little soul wavers away, wrote the Emperor Hadrian. How irretrievably unjust that yours, stored with its singular cargo, should break up forever.
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