Monday, March 14, 2016

A Very Brief History of Zero

This post is in honor of Pi Day and Albert Einstein's birthday, both which we celebrate today. Although Pi is known to more than a million digits past the famous 3.14159, my post will be about zero, likely our most important number. 

The number zero is included in the sets of whole and complex numbers but not in the
set of natural numbers. Zero is a number placed in the neutral space between the positive and negative numbers on the number line, extending to negative and positive infinite, and thus is neither positive nor negative. Zero has no value and is considered null digit. Mathematicians consider zero an even number based on the premises that if even numbers, when divided by 2 leave no remainder, as odd number do, then is clear that zero is even (1). Moreover, others have stated that it is because if an integer “N” is called even if there exists an integer “M” such that N= 2M. From this, they infer that zeros evenness is clear because zero= 2 multiplied by 0. See (1) and (2) below.

The concept of zero was recognized before the existence of the negative integers was ever considered. Babylonian and Indian mathematicians first thought of the zero around the second to the fourth millennium before the birth of Christ (4000-2000 b. C). However, its real development occurred around 36 b. C. in Mesoamerica. Archeologists hypothesize that other Mesoamerican civilizations like the Olmec may have had some knowledge of the zero much before the Mayans because of number-like hieroglyphs found in their stone calendars, and the values they are supposed to represent. Mayans used mathematics for astronomy and counting. They used their calculations to measure time and to track the stars (2). The use of zero was important because the numeric system depended on the position of the symbol for value; each symbol or glyph represented a level. Zero represented the beginning or no value from where all values originated. The values had additive properties. Precise knowledge of the previous value was crucial to get to the next (4). 

The number zero does not equal emptiness or nothingness. It is the midpoint of our number line and is commonly used to indicate magnitudes or sizes. Think of how we use zeroes every day, in our money, measurements, etc. In fact, the text you are reading now is based on a binary code of ones and zeroes. Mathematics surround us with the number zero playing a central role. 

Cited bibliography

(1)Penner, Robert C. (1999). Discrete Mathematics: Proof Techniques and Mathematical Structures. World Scientific: pg. 34.

(2) “NumeraciĆ³n Maya” retrieved on 2/13/09 from Maya.

(3) Barrow, John D. (2001). The Book of Nothing. Vintage.

(4) Dichl, Richard A. (2004). The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization. Thames & Hudson.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Why Do I Blog?

Most of us blog to communicate ideas, discoveries, news, and the excitement that accompanies discovery. I started this blog with the intention to promote and divulge interesting ideas and information about the sciences that study the past, and the understanding I have gathered through my own experience in learning and research. This, of course, is with the hope of reaching a curious and interested audience.

This ideal is important for several reasons. One is that most of the scientific data we gather through field and cabinet work is later published in specialized journals, but these journals and their content are not really accessible to the general population. Moreover, people do not have the time to keep up with the amount of articles and journals published at all times, or because they are difficult to read.

These create a breach between the most recent scientific discoveries that is of value or interest to us all. Unfortunately, this breach is also a source of mistrust and unhealthy-biased skepticism for science in general, largely due to misunderstanding or ignorance. In fact, this goes against the grain of science communication and education, and it creates a deep gap between mainstream scientific advance and public knowledge.

I have hoped to contribute, although I recognize on a smaller scale, by posting about the things that I am curious about in science, promoting the scientific rationale behind them, and my personal experiences in my journey of learning and researching within these fields. I try to explain processes to find the practicability, or even really the excuse for what we do.

But what is the excuse. What if that curiosity pays off in the long run? It does. Curiosity does pay off in the long run. Look around you. The world that surrounds us is a world created by curiosity, science and technology. Think of the computer or cell phone in which you read these lines. The principles that make these appliances are hundreds of years old, invented or idealized by curious people who had no idea that their curiosities will turn out to be practical or useful to societies of the future.

As a geoscientist, I am trained to use the present as the key to the past. We are constantly trying to recreate and reconstruct the past. But, we try to reconstruct the past in the hope that that knowledge will give us a better present and future. We use models and predictions to hypothesize and reconstruct both the past and the future. So can we reconcile what we do with the practicability of our curiosity in the scheme of time? I think so. Discovering something new or interesting is one of my greatest pleasures. If the present is indeed the only reality and a product construction of our minds, then what better way to spend one's lifetime trying to understand the world that surrounds us, the things that draw our curiosity, even if at the time they seem impracticable or useless. Most of all, sharing and distributing that knowledge makes the quest most rewarding. I think that time has shown that in science no discovery is useless. We must surely always try to answer the whys, and how, where and who of our curiosity, and science allows for that freedom of thought and exploration that can surely fill more than a lifetime, and no doubt continue to better society and enrich human life.