21 December 2006

Mr Zero has left the building...

Last night I had a long and rambling discussion with myself on whether zero is a number or a concept (summary: if you're a mathematician, it's a number; if you're a philosopher, it's probably both; if you've got a life, who cares anyway).

Today Jim Putnam argues persuasively that, while it is both, it was a concept first and a number only second.

I suppose I could maunder on about numbers having existed from the moment of the big bang, long before humans were dreamed of ... but that would (a) not really counter Jim's point, (b) indelibly confirm my boringly nerdish nature for all time, and (c) contradict the human chain of reasoning which I used yesterday. Since my friend Dirk has just finished reassuring me that while, as a mathematician, I may be a sad and barely human Billy No Mates I do have the sole consolation of being consistent, (c) is not to be tolerated.

So - I have great pleasure in agreeing with Jim. He's right in all human terms, which are the only terms which really matter: zero is both a number and a concept but, for us at least, the concept came first. He's one of the few wise people I know, however often he denies it.

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