Wilton program: zero’s history is not nothing

WILTON — For anyone who has ever wondered where the concept of zero came from, Peter Wrampe has the answer. And it is anything but simplistic. In fact, zero may have more history to it than any other number.

Wrampe will delve into the origins, complexities and controversies surrounding zero during a Zoomed discussion of the book, “Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea,” by Charles Seife, on Wednesday, July 22, from 10:30 to noon. Presented by Wilton Library, registration is required by clicking on Events at www.wiltonlibrary.org.

The book answers a simple question, he said, “where does zero come from?”

“Zero was not an obvious concept for our ancestors,” Wrampe said when asked about the program last week. “They started off with counting 1, more than 1. Then, 1, 2, more than 2. They started keeping track of things by sets of 5, for 5 fingers.” Then, of course, came sets of 10.

But there was no symbol for nothing.

Click here to sign up for the Bulletin’s free electronic newsletter, Online Today.

The Greeks, he said, were more interested in geometry in which zero and its counterpart, infinity, played no role.

Roman numerals — I, V, X, C, M, D — do not use zero.

“If you wanted to build something, you couldn’t do it with Roman numerals,” he said.

“It was a detriment to economic and scientific advancement not to have zero.”

It was the Babylonians who developed a symbol for zero, but only as a placeholder.

Fast forward more than a few centuries. Despite the fact that the first sentence in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, describes heaven and earth as a void, Western religion viewed zero and its indication of nothingness with suspicion. The concept of infinity was no better.

The philosophy of the time “was that the universe existed to revolve around the earth,” Wrampe said. “At the outer circle was God, who gave motion to it all.

“There were people who got killed for believing in zero, which I will talk about,” he said. “They believed in nothingness. If you believe in nothing, you believe in the infinite. Where is God? He is at the end of the universe.”

Ultimately, zero was fully embraced in India in the 7th century. According to Wikipedia, the first “indisputable occurrence of 0 in an inscription” — in the form of the number 270 — dates from the year 876.

With the Muslim conquest of India, the Hindu-Arabic numeral system moved west.

When asked why he wanted to present this program, Wrampe said he was looking for a “meaty program,” something that would appeal to people his “age, background and gender.”

A chemical engineer, now retired from Praxair, he said he has a passion for the number. His professional years took him around the world and when he was living in Singapore, where “television was not the best,” he began buying books. Seife’s was one of them.

“The more I read it, the more I scratched my head,” he said.

When asked to give a sales pitch for his program, he said jokingly, “my sales pitch is nothing.”

“Do you want to know why the West was so screwed up for hundreds of years economically and philosophically?” he asked. The church, he said, oppressed any thought that did not conform with its thinking.

“They really put a hammer on that because they couldn’t deal with the concept of infinity,” Wrampe said. “If you take one divided by infinity, you wind up close to zero. They couldn’t deal with that and therefore we lagged behind. It contributed to the Dark Ages. Once we accepted zero, we took off.”

For his part, Wrampe is still working, now as an adjunct instructor at New York University teaching Inferential Statistics and Finance for Marketing.

Inferential statistics, he explained, is the study of data sets — “grinding the numbers” — to infer what the future may bring based on a polling sample.

“I will never retire, I will die in the saddle,” he said. “I don’t sit around and say where can I play golf today? It doesn’t keep me occupied enough.”