Monday, August 12, 2013

For Love of Nothing

So my friend Carol Tomany got me to thinking about nothing the other day with her blog post on a similar topic.  Please, click the link, go read, enjoy her wonderful post.

But please come back after.

Now, I'm writing this thinking about nothing.  No, I mean really thinking about nothing.  Not as in not thinking, or as in thinking but having no subject of said thought, or as in that lie we often tell each other in response to the "whatcha thinkin' about?" query.

You know that lie, especially if you're a guy.  "Uh, nothing, honey," sounds a lot better (and safer) than "I just happened to be thinking about how large that other woman's breasts are."  I mean, we can't help it.  We're guys.  We think about....

Oh, um, never mind.  Let's get back to nothing, shall we?

It's safer.

No, really, think about it.  It's not hard to not think, or to not think about anything in particular.  There's just kind of a void there.  But to actually think about the void--now there's a perplexing thought.

We don't think about it much, do we?

Granted, it's not very exciting.  Nothing is--well, nothing.  It's not even exciting to physicists, which is saying something, about nothing.  It's the vacuum in space.  It's the area in between all the pesky little electrons and protons and neutrons that we're so interested in, physics-wise.  It's just nothing.

Going on vacation is the perfect time to ponder the meaningless of nothing.  I'm famous, in fact, for answering the question, "So what are you planning to do on vacation?" with an emphatic "nothing."  I've even been known to say it like either a curse word or the highest blessing available.  I'm going on vacation, and I'm doing nooooothiiiiiiinnnnnggggg!  Because, you know, my non-vacation life is so full of something, it's quite pleasant to think about doing absolutely nothing.

Thing is, I never really think about doing nothing.  Matter of fact, I never accomplish it either.  Nothing ends up being a tour on horses one day, and then a tour of caves and a lunch at a special place the next, and then so on and so forth, times three, each day for the remainder of the nothing-turned-something.  By the time I'm done with vacation, I'm so tired of doing so damn much nothing that I look forward to relaxing back into my regular routines.

Nothing, my tuckas.

Mathematically, nothing is at least kind of interesting.  It manifests itself in the whole, but not (usually) natural, number zero.  I know this--I used to teach the math class, and we had to spend way too long on the silly categorization of numbers.  "Natural numbers are those numbers you would count on your fingers if you had unlimited number of hands, while whole numbers include the number you'd get if you had no fingers."  Bah.  Who cares?

Mathematicians care, actually.  Especially mathematicians who are into the history of their field.  It's a pretty interesting story of how zero came to be accepted into the math systems of the world, since it wasn't at first.  Think about it--you've (I hope) learned at some point in your educational path that Roman numerals include an I for 1, an X for 10, and all sorts of other letters that meant a certain number.  What was the letter for zero?  Don't remember one?  There wasn't one.  It wasn't worth a symbol of its own.  When you absolutely had to have an entry of zero in a table (like in later years when you had to report to the Senate how many acres of Persian lands you captured) they'd just use the word for "nothing."

When positional notation systems came to be used, they found the need to identify the lack of inner quantities.  For example, in our current standard system--also known as "Arabic numerals", a label I've been wondering if people would try to change these days--after all, when so many Americans were angry with France over not invading Iraq with us, they wanted to change the French Fry to the Freedom Fry--now, where was I?  Oh, right--in our current system, the second digit is for tens and the third is for hundreds. What if you have 2 hundreds and no tens, as well as 5 ones?  It's 205.  Note the deft use of the circle-thingie in between the 2 and the 5 to indicate that there aren't any of what that digit represents.  In early systems, they just left the zero out, ignoring that it was an issue by just having a space there.  Nothing, in other words, to indicate nothing.  As people started writing sloppily, though, the spaces were challenging and so they started using slashes to indicate nothing, which is in fact something representing nothing.

Anyway--yeah, the topic of zeroes in math is an interesting one.

Then there's the matter of clothing, another area where nothing is interesting to contemplate.  Mark Twain observed, "So it is not nakedness that gives the sense of immodesty, the modifying the nakedness is what does it."  In other words, wearing nothing isn't such a big deal.  It is, after all, how we're born.  It's wearing something that isn't something enough and as a result makes us think of wearing nothing that is the issue.


Or--something.  About nothing.


No comments:

Post a Comment