Something about nothing


In The Republic, Plato wrote (but not in English, of course), “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

I’m writing this column on Monday, a holiday Monday, which is frequently accepted as a day on which to do nothing.

But I’m not doing nothing (which may or may not be a double negative), for I have a few jobs to do. Thinking about the concept of nothing, though, got me wondering what other people, more famous than me, had to say on the subject.

Oscar Wilde to some extent echoed Plato, when he wrote, “I love to talk about nothing. It’s the only thing I know anything about.”

One of the strange things about nothing as a mathematical concept is how long the Western world got along without it. The Romans, for instance, came up with a number system that didn’t include a zero. They had no way of writing numbers the way we write ‘40’. You think about much easier it is to manipulate numbers using the Arabic numbers, which include ‘0’, and you wonder how the Romans, who had to do all their calculations using Roman numerals, had time to conquer any part of the world.

Patrick Branwell Bronte, the brother of the somewhat more famous Anne, Charlotte and Emily, took a more aggressive stand about ‘nothing’ when he wrote, “I know only that it is time for me to be something when I am nothing.”

And then there was Helen Keller, who knew a lot about hardships and making your own way in the world: “Life is either a great adventure or nothing.”

But let us leave the final word on ‘nothing’ to songwriter Billy Preston. In 1974, a song he co-wrote with Bruce Fisher went all the way to the top of the Billboard charts. The title? Nothing From Nothing.