Thanks to my friend in graduate school for allowing me to read her book review on ZERO: THE BIOGRAPHY OF A DANGEROUS IDEA by Charles Seife. The following short story is a precipitate of it, and only begins to explore the richness of these wonderfully incomprehensible ideas.
“We have zero in common!” The mathematician protested as he searched happy comfort from his pint.
“My dedication to precision requires me to inform you that the correct English would be nothing. As in, ‘we have nothing in common.’,” corrected the linguist.
“I was, thank you.”
“Vat iz ze difference?” The artist perked, interested.
“Like you would understand! Uneducated prat. Let the adults talk please.” The mathematician offended, apparently wounded at being forced to acknowledge the third present.
With all compassion, the linguist lowered his drink and stared solemnly into the eyes of the artist and whispered “zero is a quantity, nothing, on the other hand, is the absence of something.”
The artist slowly nodded surreptitiously withdrawing a napkin from the center of the table. Soon an ink pen appeared from within the fold of his coat. He began to draw.
“That’s it! Color until we’re done. Now Mr. Palsgrave, what does your language say of infinity?”
“My language says shut up! We’re very nearly on edge speaking of zero and nothing and at least have the cheeky, though pathetic, excuse to say ‘nothing’ when asked what we are conversing about. But infinity!” His voice lowered barely audible.
“Oh, don’t worry! You look drunk enough before touching a tankard. Won’t be hard to convince them of folly. It’s that drate-poke you should be worried about.”
The artist said nothing.
“He’s German! And he may not have your past, but you genuinely ought to respect the man. We may continue on the subject of zero, but nothing else.”
“You may save the energy of your morality for your work Mr. Palsgrave. As for zero, it is unavoidable. Besides, infinity,” he spoke belligerently clear, “has already been written in Scripture. What on earth do you think eternal means?”
“Iz not zis merely the absence of an end?”
“Oh good, you’ve been following. Yes, and the absence of an end is as distant as the distance between nothing and something. You see, to go from complete nothingness to veritable substance…”
The linguist interrupted. “There has to be a moment! This idea of zero, of nothing, of void, of absolute empty implies there has to be a separate something to come along and fill it. But what can move between substance and absence but God alone? You’re a terrible Catholic you know,” he shot the Italian a facetious grin.
“Perhaps. Took you both long enough,” the mathematician returned with a smile.
“No,” the artist stated flatly.
“Oh can it! The thinking’s already been done!”
“No,” he repeated.
“We were speaking of the infinite. What iz dis but only a repackaging of zero. To begin, and to end. Like this drawing,” he motioned to the napkin where he had drawn two intersecting lines. “Where de lines begin, this iz their zero. But where do ze lines end? You ‘ave both ‘eard of molecules. At what molecule does ze first line end and ze other begin? And what if ze share a molecule? Do you divide it again? And a zird time? And a fourth? How many divisions must you do? Zis, I think, is infinity. It reminds me of a stone vall at home. Ze vall is meant for ze sheep to keep zem from ze road. It iz short, but goes up ze side of a mountain and stretches beyond what any eye can zee. But now, where iz ze point one fails to zee it? I like zis…infinity. You are not so bad Mr. Niccolo. Zank you.”
The artist removed himself from the table, folded his napkin, got up, and walked away.