WHAT USE IS ZERO?

We simply could not do without 0. The progress of science has depended on it. We talk about zero degrees longitude, zero degrees on the temperature scale, and likewise zero energy and zero gravity. It has entered the non-scientific language with such ideas as the zero-hour and zero-tolerance.

Greater use could be made of it though. If you step off the 5th Ave sidewalk in New York City and into the Empire State Building, you are in the magnificent entrance lobby on Floor Number 1. This makes use of the ability of numbers to order, 1 for ‘first’, 2 for ‘second’ and so on, up to 102 for ‘a hundred and second.’ In Europe they do have a Floor 0 but there is a reluctance to call it that.

Mathematics could not function without zero. It is in the kernel of mathematical concepts which make the number system, algebra, and geometry go round. On the number line 0 is the number that separates the positive numbers from the negatives and thus occupies a privileged position. In the decimal system, zero serves as a place holder which enables us to use both huge numbers and microscopic figures.

Over the course of hundreds of years zero has become accepted and utilised, becoming one of the greatest inventions of man. The 19th-century American mathematician G.B. Halsted adapted Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream to write of it as the engine of progress that gives ‘to airy nothing, not merely a local habitation and a name, a picture, a symbol, but helpful power, is the characteristic of the Hindu race from whence it sprang’.

When 0 was introduced it must have been thought odd, but mathematicians have a habit of fastening onto strange concepts which are proved useful much later. The modern day equivalent occurs in set theory where the concept of a set is a collection of elements.

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