Numbers are amazing inventions. Like chemical compounds, they possess properties that can be exploited to solve problems, problems like how to land a man on the moon or who will be the next president. Perhaps the most important number ever to be invented is zero. It is nothing, yet today we cannot live without it. Zero is the number that enables us to calculate outcomes using equations. It determines who gets what in an economy and who gets power in elections. It binds us all together.
On the face of it, zero is a perfect tool. What is there not to like about it? It is thoroughly reliable and it works unobtrusively in the background in a way which appeals to our sense of good service, balance and symmetry. But look deeper at its properties, and discover that it is not all that it seems.
The problem with zero is that it has no property connecting it with how it was formed and what it will turn into. It has no memory. Did it come from paying off your debt or spending your last dollar? Did it come from negating peoples’ likes or their dislikes in a vote? There is no operator for turning zero into +1 or -1. You have to manually break the symmetry of zero to afford +1 and -1. When used to bind us together, and with the rest of life we share the earth with, it produces some unwanted side effects. We sometimes end up taking collective decisions to do things or elect leaders we are actually against. We often produce huge, destabilising trade imbalances. We sometimes give up relying on mathematics to resolve disputes and go to war. We lay waste to the planet we live in through pursuing numbers as far above zero as we can get to.
If zero were a medicine, we would be looking for a better replacement, something that has all the desirable properties, but less of the unwanted side effects.
A medicinal chemist would take this on as a research project. The desirable and undesirable properties of zero would be identified and assays constructed to test candidate numbers to find out whether or not they possess these properties. Zero itself would be used as a control. Candidates possessing the desirable, but not the undesirable properties would be advanced for further testing and evaluation. Zero has itself been tested in many different applications over hundreds, if not thousands of years, witnessed over the rise and fall of civilizations. It is the standard to beat. Only after exhaustive safety and efficacy testing would a candidate be deemed ready for live use in place of zero. Its’ introduction could completely change the relationships between people and between humans and other living things.