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How can nothing can be something?
February 7, 2014 1:33 PM   Subscribe

While the concept of shunya or "zero", both as place holder in the decimal system and as "null" or "nothingness" has been historically attributed to the Indian mathematician/astronomer Aryabhata, it was when I went to search for its history and impact that whole new world was revealed. From culture and art to spiritual practice, the concept of zero has captured the imagination of many throughout the ages. Books have been written, its origins debated while the etymology of the word itself sometimes replaces understanding. From a disconcerting concept of nothingness to the ubiquitous misspelling of the one followed by a hundred zeros, Shunya today is more than just the gaping void it originally represented.
posted by infini (55 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite

 
It'd be brilliant if this post could continue having zero comments! We can do it! Focus people!
posted by srboisvert at 1:42 PM on February 7 [9 favorites]


 
posted by Hairy Lobster at 1:47 PM on February 7 [9 favorites]


It's been, what? Ten years? Since it went offline and I still feel the need to double check a "gaping void" hyperlink for the presence of a certain notorious shock site.
posted by indubitable at 1:51 PM on February 7 [14 favorites]


The post is about nothing!
posted by graymouser at 1:54 PM on February 7


Nothing to say here. Get it, nothing, in a post about nothing. Eh? Eh? Ah yes, I am a zero, sigh.
posted by sammyo at 1:56 PM on February 7


I don't get it.
posted by Wolfdog at 1:56 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


It's been, what? Ten years? Since it went offline and I still feel the need to double check a "gaping void" hyperlink for the presence of a certain notorious shock site.

Man I haven't thought of Friendster in forever.
posted by Celsius1414 at 1:56 PM on February 7 [13 favorites]


zero is intimately connected with infinity. whoah.
posted by sineater at 2:07 PM on February 7


nothingness.org
posted by Mister Bijou at 2:11 PM on February 7


The Fugs anticipated this post.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:14 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]


Don't forget Zero Mostel
posted by GallonOfAlan at 2:21 PM on February 7


Don't appreciations of mefites go in meTa?
posted by rtha at 2:21 PM on February 7


*flails hands wavingly*

darn threadshitters... gerroff my lawn if you have nothing to add mumble grumble
posted by infini at 2:25 PM on February 7


Don't forget Zero Mostel

I stayed at that mostel one night, but I don't remember anything about it.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:29 PM on February 7


This is not the anything you were looking for.
posted by The Riker Who Mounts the World at 2:31 PM on February 7


Nothing will come of nothing.
posted by yoink at 2:32 PM on February 7


Another precursor of this FPP.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:32 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


Eponysterical?
posted by T.D. Strange at 2:34 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Sam Beckett: "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new."
posted by Mister Bijou at 2:34 PM on February 7


Oh, it's nothing...
posted by languagehat at 2:39 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]


Can't be a double, though, because nothing times two is still nothing.
posted by The Riker Who Mounts the World at 2:40 PM on February 7 [5 favorites]


I wonder why humans did not come up with the concept of zero as soon as the wheel was invented.
posted by Renoroc at 2:45 PM on February 7


Because some things are, and some things are not.
posted by an animate objects at 2:46 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Renoroc: “I wonder why humans did not come up with the concept of zero as soon as the wheel was invented.”

Apparently because they were smarter back then. Zero is a contradictory concept. Humans have always understood what it means to have nothing; calling that nothing a number is a massive mistake, though.
posted by koeselitz at 2:49 PM on February 7


Very important: 2013 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: The Existence of Nothing [SLYT]

Moderated by Neil Degrasse Tyson

Featuring:
J. Richard Gott, professor of astrophysical sciences, Princeton University, and author of Sizing Up the Universe: The Cosmos in Perspective
Jim Holt, science journalist and author of Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story
Lawrence Krauss, professor of physics, Arizona State University and author of A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing
Charles Seife, professor of journalism, New York University, and author of Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea
Eve Silverstein, professor of physics, Stanford University, and co-editor of Strings, Branes and Gravity
posted by mysticreferee at 2:49 PM on February 7 [4 favorites]


Thanks for the previously languagehat, I actually started tracing Shunya and ended up with this though.
posted by infini at 2:55 PM on February 7


Nothing From Nothing Leaves Nothing.
posted by Longtime Listener at 2:55 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


calling that nothing a number is a massive mistake, though

How so? Without the number zero, simple arithmetic falls apart. How do you solve one minus one without it?
posted by rocket88 at 3:02 PM on February 7


One minus one is nothing. No number.
posted by koeselitz at 3:19 PM on February 7


(One isn't a number either, but that's a whole other thing, really.)
posted by koeselitz at 3:19 PM on February 7


How do you feel about negative numbers?
posted by Pyry at 3:38 PM on February 7


Upbeat.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:48 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


I imagined there'd be an erudite conversation about higher mathematics and zen buddhism. Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine this... ;p
posted by infini at 3:55 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]


koeselitz: "One minus one is nothing. No number."

Wolfram Math World disagrees:
"Zero is the integer denoted 0 that, when used as a counting number, means that no objects are present."
and
"Integer: One of the numbers ..., , , 0, 1, 2, ...."

By these definitions zero is a number.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 4:03 PM on February 7


Don't forget shunyata, the Buddhist concept of emptiness.
posted by njohnson23 at 4:26 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


We can do it! Focus people!

Wait. Focus...on what?
posted by Smedleyman at 4:32 PM on February 7


How can nothing can be something?
posted by infini


Epony... I got nothing!
posted by Room 641-A at 4:39 PM on February 7


I really like the idea that ancient Indian mathematicians wrote about mathematics in verse. (It probably made it easier to memorize the principles they were expounding.)

And I like this quote from Bhaskara on dividing by zero:
A quantity divided by zero becomes a fraction the denominator of which is zero. This fraction is termed an infinite quantity. In this quantity consisting of that which has zero for its divisor, there is no alteration, though many may be inserted or extracted; as no change takes place in the infinite and immutable God when worlds are created or destroyed, though numerous orders of beings are absorbed or put forth.
It's so much more prosaic to just say 'it's undefined'.
posted by nangar at 4:58 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


I really like the idea that ancient Indian mathematicians wrote about mathematics in verse

Makes perfect sense when you consider that "numbers" in English actually means verse (as in Hamlet's "I am ill at these numbers").
posted by yoink at 5:08 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]


This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
nothing

Forgive me

I'm so hungry
posted by The Riker Who Mounts the World at 5:12 PM on February 7 [6 favorites]


Zeros mean so much.
posted by svenx at 6:07 PM on February 7


After this afternoon's team-building event at the bowling alley, I would like to register a protest against the invention of the zero. I would have done better if that were not a possible score.

After today, my nickname is Gutter Girl. I am okay with this. Others did at least as badly.
posted by Lexica at 8:18 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


One minus one is nothing. No number.

If the number zero did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.
posted by rocket88 at 9:03 PM on February 7


Coincidentally, someone just sent me this:

Give us MORE P-38's
"The leader of the first element set his Zero afire at the top of the loop...rolled out with a Zero on his tail...his wing man shot it down...Altogether the 4 P-38's met 11 Zeros on this mission, shot down 7 sure a 2 probables. They returned to base without a single bullet hole in them." -- Army Air Forces report
posted by Room 641-A at 9:51 PM on February 7


Is this a thing?
posted by Foosnark at 10:11 PM on February 7


"So what's happening with the TV show, you come up with anything?"
"No, nothing."


-

10 deep
Swag-er. This is a mixtape about... nothing. Not on drugs
If you bear with me you might see the undertone
Of the undertoned message that's at hand at the you know that I'm talkin' bout? Yeah
Look

Hmm, what's the deal with this rap stuff?
Since Napster the sales been crashin' and
Since Napster the game's been flooded by
Has-beens and never-will-be, ringtone rappers

posted by gucci mane at 10:14 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


I thought the great Indian Mathmatician Brahmagupta invented zero?
posted by marienbad at 12:34 AM on February 8


oh awesome - from the Aryabhatiya on wiki:

"Aryabhata asserted that the Moon, planets, and asterisms shine by reflected sunlight.[6][7] He also correctly explained the causes of eclipses of the Sun and the Moon. His value for the length of the sidereal year at 365 days 6 hours 12 minutes 30 seconds is only 3 minutes 20 seconds longer than the true value of 365 days 6 hours 9 minutes 10 seconds. In this book, the day was reckoned from one sunrise to the next, whereas in his "Āryabhata-siddhānta" he took the day from one midnight to another. There was also difference in some astronomical parameters.

A close approximation to π is given as : "Add four to one hundred, multiply by eight and then add sixty-two thousand. The result is approximately the circumference of a circle of diameter twenty thousand. By this rule the relation of the circumference to diameter is given." In other words, π ≈ 62832/20000 = 3.1416, correct to four rounded-off decimal places.

Aryabhata was the first astronomer to make an attempt at measuring the Earth's circumference since Eratosthenes (circa 200 BC). Aryabhata accurately calculated the Earth's circumference as 24,835 miles, which was only 0.2% smaller than the actual value of 24,902 miles. This approximation remained the most accurate for over a thousand years."
posted by marienbad at 12:37 AM on February 8 [6 favorites]


Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:57 AM on February 8 [2 favorites]


Altogether the 4 P-38's met 11 Zeros on this mission, shot down 7 sure a 2 probables.

They really knew how to make can-openers in those days.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:10 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]


Is this something I'd need nothing to understand?
posted by Room 641-A at 10:44 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]


"Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could."
– Captain von Trapp/Maria, The Sound of Music

(I never knew this was a reference to a thing: ex nihilo nihil fit)

But my favorite lines are from the Schoolhouse Rock video linked upthread:

"With only ten digits, including zero,
You can count as high as you could ever go...
Forever, towards infinity,
No one ever gets there, but you could try."
posted by LEGO Damashii at 12:14 PM on February 8 [1 favorite]


"Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could."
– Captain von Trapp

"Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing."
– Stephen Hawking
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:38 PM on February 8 [1 favorite]


marienbad, Brahmagupta laid out the rules for calculating with zero but the concept of its very existence has always been attributed to Aryabhata. One of the links in the FPP goes to Brahmagupta's bio and math.
posted by infini at 12:08 AM on February 9


The Zero Theorem - Official Trailer (2014)
posted by homunculus at 2:15 PM on February 9


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