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Opinions are fun. My friends tell me I am someone with lots of opinions and that's fine since I don't get mad at others when they disagree with me. In this same spirit I am interested in hearing yours views as long as you are able to share your views without boiling over. I look forward to hearing from you. I tend to write in the form of short essays most of the time, but contributions do not need to be in this same format or size. Some of the content here will date itself pretty quickly, other content may be virtually timeless, this is for the reader to judge.


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The Best Number is                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Mar/05/2016 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: My philosophy, Perspectives,

I like to consider myself “well read.” By stating this I believe that I have learned enough in my life to speak intelligently on many subjects. Sometimes I am inspired to correct the liberties taken by some to rewrite history to serve an agenda. Sometimes I write about what I believe to be important political or philosophical observations that seem to have an especially timely meaning. Until this time I have avoided picking on the content of prime-time televisions situation comedies, but Sheldon Cooper struck a nerve so I need to publish my correction to his rants about the best number.

Known for proclaiming his expertise in nearly all aspects of mankind’s accumulated knowledge, fictional theoretical physicists Sheldon Cooper of the Big Bang Theory recently stated that “the best number is 73.” Specifically, Sheldon said "The best number is 73. Why? 73 is the 21st prime number. Its mirror, 37, is the 12th and its mirror, 21, is the product of multiplying 7 and 3... and in binary 73 is a palindrome, 1001001, which backwards is 1001001." While all of the aforementioned does well on the checklist of accumulated trivia, it does not make 73 the best number. I want to assure you that there is no better number than “zero.”

The history of numbers and numbering systems is useless trivia to most, but in a fascinating manner parallels man kinds development of culture, trade and philosophy. Early number systems appear only in cultures where trade was developing. Any contemporary book keeper will happily confirm the need to keep written records of how many chickens were just swapped for a specific number of bushels of grain to be delivered at the end of the harvest season.

Most early numbering systems were similar in nature to the “Roman Numerals” all of us learned in school. There were no reusable digits, instead there were specific symbols for specific values. When the values got larger, new symbols would be added to the lexicon. In contrast, the ancient Egyptian numerals of their hieroglyphs were digits in a base 10 format. By approximately 1740 BC their numbering system included a number somewhat like zero. The symbol nfr, meaning beautiful was used to indicate the base level or starting point. All the early drawings of tombs and pyramids were referenced to a base line that was called nfr. Not unreasonable for drawings and measurements to begin at their version of zero.

By 200 BC the Babylonians were using a sophisticated numbering system in which digits were reused with larger and larger values. Nevertheless, they lacked a symbol to function as a positional placeholder, instead; spaces or two slanted wedges would be used.

Records show that the ancient Greeks seemed unsure about the status of zero being a number. Since numbers represent a quantity of something, “How can nothing be something?” Clearly, the Greeks took the time to ask a lot of philosophical questions. This question of the existence of zero persisted and by the medieval period was a significant religious argument. Clearly, if God created everything it seemed unreasonable to believe God would also create something that was nothing. Hampered by this same hurdle, the notion of a vacuum (our current understanding of space) struggled to gain acceptance. Assigning a quantity of measurement to “nothing” would be a radical concept the first time it was shared.

During the last centuries of the Roman Empire “computists” (those who tried to calculate the exact date of Easter) found a need to quantify a zero when division produced nothing as a remainder. These computists came up with the character ‘N’ calling it “nulla” or “nihil” meaning nothing and creating the base to words that are part of our contemporary language.

The earliest text specifying the use of decimal digits and a zero as a place value notation can be traced to the Indian mathematician Aryabhata in his Sanskrit astronomical treatise published approximately 500 AD. While the Indian continent and parts of the Middle East had adopted using a zero as a placeholder for ever increasing numbers, Europe was significantly behind.

The Hindu-Arabic numeral system reached Europe in the 11th century via the Spanish Muslims. The Moors brought their math and related advanced knowledge of astronomy and instruments to southern Europe. This is the reason the numerals we are accustomed to are known as “Arabic numerals.”

The Italian mathematician Leonardo of Pisa (aka. Fibonacci) (c. 1170-1250), was raised in North Africa and is widely credited with the broad introduction of the decimal numerical system to Europe. Leonardo’s father was a state customs official for the Italian government working in Eastern Algeria. While there with his father he learned “the nine digits of the Hindus” and the “niceties of Euclid’s geometric art.” Fibonacci in a letter to a friend said “The nine Indian figures are: 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. With these nine figures, and with the sign 0 ... any number may be written.” Since Roman numerals were still common in Europe, he clearly saw the beauty in using these 10 digits to form and indicate any number without limitation.

More than any other digit, Leonardo observed how the use of a “0” as a placeholder allowed for the other digits to be reused indicating ever larger and larger numbers, something that the Roman system did not allow for. Even so, zero was initially confined to being a placeholder or punctuation for the other digits. While the Chinese had grasped the concept of “nothing” and of negative numbers by the Han Dynasty (200 AD), these concepts eluded Europeans. It was not until the 16th century in Europe that religious pressures faded enough that the digit zero was allow to assume the additional role of formally representing the value of nothing, a truly radical concept.

In our modern era, the number zero has a long list of unique and significant properties and roles that help earn a place as “the best number.” When any other number is divided by zero, it is considered “undefined”. Nevertheless, the opposite is not true; zero can be divided by any number with the result simply being indeterminate in value. Zero is most commonly recognized for its ability to be a placeholder allowing for expanding reuse of the other 9 digits. When a nine (9) is followed by a zero, the resulting value is a factor of 10 larger than the initial values. The difference between 5,000,000 and 50 is very obvious to us, but only because of the impact of using successive zero’s. Yet, by itself, zero is the quantified and measured value of nothing. Zero speed can mean you are standing still, while a price of zero is an exceptional value also known as free. For most people, zero is the first number in an infinite list. For a gambler, zero chips means they are done. For a rocket launch, zero is the pinnacle of a critical sequence.

Of particular note, all the numbers on a roulette wheel have either a red or black backgrounds, except for the number zero which has a green background. If the ball falls on the green zero, all bets go to the house.

The number zero fulfills a central role in modern mathematics and our lives. Whether you want to call it nought, naught, nada, love (tennis), goose egg, null, nil, zip, zilch, or just plain old zero; it is clearly the best number by sheer versatility and its ability to make all the other numbers better and more useful.

Sheldon Cooper seldom does anything without a self-serving agenda. It is interesting to note that his rant about the cool characteristics of the number 73 just happen to come during the 73rd episode of the Big Bang Theory television series…bazinga!

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Rita Mae Brown
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