When it came to Z-day, I immediately knew the word would be zero. The problem is, I’m not sure what I want to say about it. (I wish I could say, “I got nothing,” but that’s not true.)
Between its significance as a number and the shape of its symbol, zero is a pretty rich topic. A few years ago, a conversation with a friend got me thinking about zero as a concept. That led me to do a free-flow list of terms that come to mind when I think of the word:
Zip naught aught nada nothing goose-egg false no none circle infinity
Japanese fighter plane skunk new origin start neutral center point dot
nowhere never impossible lose loser blank empty wheel anomaly
spent ring eye Oh! opening binary close bagel doughnut okay love
The conversation also led me to read the book* Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife. Prior to coming across the book, I never would have dreamed the humble zero could warrant an entire book. Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised considering that, mathematically speaking, zero is only a reciprocal away from infinity.
Is it any wonder, then, that I’m uncertain how to do this amazing critter justice?
Rather than sweat it, I’ll do what I’ve been doing. I’ll punt. Here are a few zero-inspired tidbits.
In many tarot decks, 0 is the number associated with The Fool. It’s the only card connected with zero. The Fool usually has the flavor of beginning anew. You math lovers will remember that 0,0 is the origin in the Cartesian coordinate system. That fits in that The Fool is associated with innocence, starting a journey, or even being born. (Of course, there’s much more to the card than that.)
Now that I think about it, this all reminds me of the idea of beginner’s mind from Zen Buddhism. The state of zero can be that of a clearing or space into which something might come into being. I almost want to say that zero contains within it the space of infinite potential, but I haven’t thought that one through. Maybe it just sounds cool.
Finally, when I consider zero as a number, I remember how people used to refer to the first years of the twentieth century like “back in aught-nine.” (No, I’m not old enough to have actually used that, though I guess it could apply to 2009, right?)
It turns out aught is kind of interesting. In my trusty American Heritage Dictionary, there are two separate entries for aught. The first defines aught as “anything whatever.” The second entry defines aught as “A cipher; zero” but also contains an archaic definition, “nothing.”
How cool is that? Aught is anything or nothing. Okay, I’m taking major liberties here, but it’s Z-day, so maybe you can cut me some slack.
* I recommend checking out the book. It’s fairly short, and it’s a fascinating history of this number we take for granted.