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much ado about nothing

04 Nov Posted by in Via Negativa | Comments

“Outside of God there is nothing but nothing.”

Meister Eckhart


“Meditation is like fly fishing without a fly expecting to catch nothing … expecting nothing … standing in the Source.”

Via Negativa

nothingIt was only in the 5th century that ‘zero’ was introduced to mathematics and philosophy and it set a cat amongst the pigeons. Before then there was no nothing. The church even banned any talk of ‘zero’. It seemed to negate everything that God had created and everything that was ‘good’.

The oldest known text to use a decimal place-value system, including a zero, is the Jain text from India entitled the Lokavibhâga, dated 458 AD, where shunya (“void” or “empty”) was employed for this purpose.

The rules governing the use of zero appeared for the first time in Brahmagupta’s book Brahmasputha Siddhanta (The Opening of the Universe), written in 628 AD. Here Brahmagupta considers not only zero, but negative numbers, and the algebraic rules for the elementary operations of arithmetic with such numbers. Here are the rules of Brahmagupta:

  • The sum of zero and a negative number is negative.
  • The sum of zero and a positive number is positive.
  • The sum of zero and zero is zero.
  • The sum of a positive and a negative is their difference; or, if their absolute values are equal, zero.
  • A positive or negative number when divided by zero is a fraction with the zero as denominator.
  • Zero divided by a negative or positive number is either zero or is expressed as a fraction with zero as numerator and the finite quantity as denominator.
  • Zero divided by zero is zero.

In saying zero divided by zero is zero, Brahmagupta differs from the modern position. Mathematicians normally do not assign a value to this, whereas computers and calculators sometimes assign NaN, which means “not a number.” Try it now on a calculator or your phone – on my iPhone I get “ERROR”. On my Mac I get ‘Not a Number’. I like NaN … its also a palindrome – nothing is the same backwards as forwards.

But without nothing, or rather what we’ve long taken to be nothing – we’d be nowhere. For centuries, scientists have known that it may be the key to understanding everything from why particles have mass to the expansion of the universe. The start – and end – of the universe, dark energy, superconductivity, consciousness – all these scientific issues are players in the drama surrounding nothing. These ideas about nothing are explored in the New Scientist book aptly titled … ‘Nothing‘.

So, don’t avoid doing nothing or thinking about nothing … it is the seed of everything.

Watch this animation from New Scientist explaining why there is no such thing as nothing.


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