Monday, June 12, 2006

P. Wilson: ZERO

My friend, Pud, was all excited about zeroes.

“Where would we be without zeroes?” he said, as if responding to an attack. “Last night I was watching Chinese TV, and—“

“Why the fuck were you watching Chinese TV?”

“Best thing on.” Pud said, annoyed. “So they had all these Asian language subtitles, you know, all that noodle-stuff,” (Pud loves to assert a connection between the written Chinese characters and uncooked Top Ramen), “and I noticed that I could easily read the numbers. They use fucking Arabic numerals!’

“Here we are belittling and bombing the Arabs and all the time we’re using their goddamn numbering system! Can you imagine where Western civilization would be if we were still using Roman numerals? Like, you’re trying to buy some meds on-line and you look at the keyboard and there’s no number keys. Talk about jonesing!

“They say the great Arab contribution was Zero. The idea that you could have something, a zero, that stands for nothing, is kind of a stretch. Like, the ink that forms the character is something, it is certainly not nothing, yet it means absolutely nothing.

“How does one depict the absence of something? Most of the universe is empty space. And molecules are mostly empty space. Drill down and you get quarks and charm and all that shit. And the fucking Arabs recognized this. So good for them.”

“But what does this have to do with anything?” I gently queried.

“Remember, in the fourth grade,” Pud said, “when the kids used to call me ‘zero’?”

“That was when you were trying to get zeroes on multiple choice exams.”

“Yeah, I did it twice,” Pud said proudly, “problem is you sort of have to know the right answers in order to avoid them, and that meant, like, studying.”

“And…,” I prompted.

“So, I was like, eleven, and I was already hip to the whole Arab thing, you know, zeroes and stuff, so give me some fucking credit!”

----- o -----


sfmike said...

I love this story, and the Unabomber one previously. It's hard being a little too bright in this odd world we find ourselves in for all kinds of reasons. Having the CIA dose you with hallucinogens (via Harvard) and taking absurdist multiple choice tests are just two of the possible hoops.

Paul Harmon said...

The Arabs have contributed a lot to civilization, but their contribution of the zero is similar to their contribution of Greek literature to late Middle Aged Europeans -- they passed along something they got from someone else. The zero and the numberal system we call Arabic both came from India.
Only two cultures are known to have figured out Zero on their own, the Indians and the Mayans. Everyone else apparently borrowed.

sfwillie said...

I checked with Pud. He acknowledges Paul's statement as conventional wisdom. However, as long as the debate goes on (who told the Indians and Mayans?)Pud is sticking with his gut-level suspicion that zero seems "way Arabic."