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When Zero Died
May 1, 2008

Long, long ago, in a far away world that was inhabited by numbers, it was a clear dawn when the world of numbers witnessed the birth of a new number. It was a baby as small as a dot and capable of nothing but crying. They named it “Zero.” The newborn did not have any merit at the time, but its presence gave joy to life in the realm of numbers. Suddenly, the whole country reverberated with the good news of the birth of Zero.

For the care of baby Zero, the numbers decided to take turns. Each number would hold the baby beside it. As the days passed, the numbers realized a puzzling fact. Those numbers who gave care in the right manner saw a never-seen abundance at home; everything would increase tenfold. The numbers who passed their turns superficially did not see any difference in their living. Was it a sign from God that the numbers could not grasp?

Days passed, and the numbers were expecting to see some developments in the newborn. It was supposed to make facial expressions, start uttering some meaningful sounds, make purposeful movements with its arms, and so on. But zero did not exhibit any of the expected qualities. The numbers thought, “Maybe it’s a late-developer.” But soon they understood that this number was disabled in many respects. It would not give any known response to any of the stimuli. It would not make a difference when used in summation or subtraction games. In the multiplication game, it would give a deep silence as the result, no matter how big a number it played with. And in the division game, no matter what number divided Zero, the result would be a hopeless reluctance to change. The numbers could not reconcile in their minds the miraculous abundance upon the proper care for Zero with its extraordinary disability. What was the deal with this baby?

Years flew by like a stream, and Zero entered adolescence. Now its body was not only growing very fast but was also assuming a more rounded shape, leaving its primitive seed-like dot form. With the rebellious instincts of adolescence, Zero discovered its ability to roll, instead of the step-by-step walk of the others. And soon it discovered that it was able to move much faster than the others by rolling. This unexpected burst of motor skills from Zero made the numbers very happy. They did not have to put burden themselves anymore to move Zero. Once a totally disabled baby, Zero was now the new roller in the numbers kingdom that even the wealthiest numbers could not catch up with.

The downside of this was that Zero was not able to stop. It had to hit another number for that, just like in the multiplication game. Maybe part of the wisdom of the apparent disability of Zero at the beginning of its life was that it needed to gain wisdom to control its super ability to move. However, especially within the first months of the discovery of its new skill, Zero just rolled, rolled and rolled. Even some accidents did not scare Zero from its attempts to roll farther and faster. After all, it had a proper justification for it, considering its long years of immobility.

As Zero grew even more, and as the numbers watched it closely, they realized it had another interesting feature. It possessed an enthralling beauty due to its perfect symmetry. How was it possible that such unparalleled elegance emerged in a number that was initially thought to be disabled? The numbers decided to consult the Savant One. One was the oldest among the numbers, was held noble among all others, and knew history very well. As knowledgeable and noble as it was, One was humble as well, as it would bend its torso to talk with children, instead of distinguishing itself among everybody by raising its head straight up.

Savant One said, “I have been looking at the ancient books about the signs of this number. As told, it was born disabled, and it was raised by its relatives; it then surpassed everyone else by its speed of motion and its perfect rotational symmetry. More than that, as Zero grows, it is assuming the shape that we observe in all heavenly objects. This young member of our community has more to teach us. We need to wait and see.”

After the numbers had left the house of One, Prime Minister Two could not hold back its words and raised its voice: “Could it be that the old guy is mixing things up due to its age? I mean, how do we know that the things written in those books are authentic? Zero is not totally different from us; it is just another number, anyway. Why are we bothering ourselves with something that no one has seen before? Are we going to leave the greatest numbers for the sake of this fledgling egg?” And then, Two burst into laughter. Some of the numbers joined it in laughing, and some others said, “We’ll see!”

As the years passed, Zero started questioning its existence, and contemplating its character as a number. It had heard the words of both the Savant One and the Prime Minister Two, but it could not come to an exact conclusion about itself. Maybe Two was right. Even if the ancient books did actually talk about someone, who said that it was Zero that was expected, anyway? So, with this mindset, Zero preferred a midway between that of Savant One and that of Prime Minister Two.

As Zero was leaving adolescence, something started bothering Zero from inside again. It was as if somebody were periodically disturbing its comfortable life by triggering emotions that were not satisfied with the daily stuff that Zero did. So, Zero started reflecting again. This time, it considered the things it had experienced so far in its unusual life story: its initial disability in life and the consequent burst of motor skill, its initial negligible size and the unparalleled beauty it exhibited as it grew, the words of the Savant One and those of Prime Minister Two, and so on.

It was one of those times that Zero felt a sudden shiver with the coolness of an inspiration that penetrated its whole body. Zero felt that its life was full of opposites, so that, by pondering over the respective non-existence and existence of its qualities, it might understand infinity. These thoughts motivated Zero to investigate infinity by talking to other numbers.

The answer that best resonated with what Zero felt was from Savant One: “I have not seen infinity, but I do know that I was the first one to exist among numbers. I feel that I could not have come to be out of nothing. And seeing all these numbers that came after me, I better understand that what made me is infinity. And, oh my little one, if you ask what one step before me was, the ancient books say that it is you who is going to reveal that.” And the answer that Zero did not like much was from the Prime Minister Two: “There is no such thing as infinity. No matter how great a number you imagine, by adding one, you can always obtain a greater number.

And, this is all there is about it; there is no one who has actually seen infinity, anyway; it is no more than a figment of our imagination.”

When alone, Zero thought, “I can understand Two because when it came to the world, it saw One already there; so, Two cannot comprehend coming to existence without an ancestor. But what I feel inside is more like what One tells me. One can realize the existence of something that triggered its existence because when it came to the world, there was none other than One.” After a silence, Zero mumbled, “If I exist, then you exist. But where are you? If only I could see you…”

Life had been very turbulent for Zero. First, disabilities that burdened it, then a sudden explosion of skills and emotions, then the painful questioning it went through without satisfactory answers, and finally a conclusion that brought peace along with a wish for homecoming. Soon after, not being able to stand the harshness of such turbulence, Zero fell sick. It started losing weight to the point that it almost returned to its initial state at birth. With this final sickness at such a young age, Zero had had enough of it here. Although everybody was sad about what was going on, at the same time they thought that the best thing for this unique number was to die.

And Zero died. They buried it under the quotient line. Roses grew on its grave, as beautiful as Zero, as noble as One. Thus commemorated was the phrase “one over zero,” in order to refer to this beauty. It was then that the numbers understood what Zero felt inside. And the numbers visited Zero from time to time, whenever they needed a glimpse of beauty stretching from infinity. As powerless as it was, Zero helped others understand infinity not by its existence among them, but by lying below them.