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Zero is Abstract and Mysterious, but Never Odd

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, November 15, 2012

When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg imposed odd-even gas rationing in the city, he announced that people with license plates "ending in an even number or the number zero will be able to buy gas or diesel only on even numbered days.”

So does that mean zero is an even number?

A New York Times story by Vivian Yee addresses this issue. Yee quotes Walter Neumann, chair of Barnard College mathematics department, who says there’s no question. He explained that even integers, or whole numbers, are numbers that can be divided by two without producing a non-whole number. Four divided by two equals two, five divided by two produces 2.5. Zero divided by two equals zero, with no fraction or decimal left. So that should settle it, right?

Professor Hossein Arsham of the University of Baltimore who has written about the concept of zero, told the Times that when an odd-even license plate driving system was imposed in Paris in 1977 to reduce traffic during a smog alert, people whose plate numbers ended in zero drove around whenever they wanted because police weren’t sure how to categorize zero.

Roots of the concept of zero are shrouded in the deep past. The Babylonians used a symbol considered to be an ancestor of zero as a place holder—a mark used to distinguish—in our numbers—the difference between 1, 10 and 100. The ancient Greeks contemplated the philosophical question of how nothing could be something, and wondered about the existence of zero and the concept of the vacuum.

A Scientific American article by John Matson says the number zero as we know it today was brought to the West about 1200 by the Italian mathematician Leonardo of Pisa, also known as Fibonacci, who learned about Hindu-Arabic numerals when he traveled in North Africa. Fibonacci, considered the most talented Western mathematician of the Middle Ages, realized the Arabic system made math more efficient than using Roman numerals, and published a book that popularized the system in Europe. Matson quotes Charles Seife, the author of Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, as explaining that the idea originated in the Fertile Crescent around 350 BCE, developed in India and moved through North Africa before Fibonacci found it. He explains that a "full throated zero” isn’t just a place holder, it’s the average of minus one and plus one.

Matson also quotes Robert Kaplan, the author of The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero, as explaining that zero as a number in its own right began to take shape in India, in the fifth century AD. But he says it was slow to spread because in some cultures, the notion of zero had dark and magical connotations. Interestingly, he adds, the idea of zero appeared in Mayan culture in the New World, apparently from scratch, independent of discoveries elsewhere.

In New York, motorists with plates ending in an odd number or a letter could fill up on odd numbered days. When Gov. Chris Christie announced odd-even gas rationing in New Jersey—which was in effect from Nov. 3 to Nov. 12—the philosophical and mathematical nature of zero was left officially unaddressed, as was the positioning of letters on the plate. Some drivers whose license plates ended with letters rather than numbers thought they might get away with exemption from the rule, but that didn’t fly with police, gas station attendants, or motorists waiting in lines.

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