The Discovery or Invention of Nothing

Nothing - Invented or Discovered?Think about – nothing.  Was “nothing� discovered or invented?  Did some fortunate soul discover “nothing� when they tripped over it on a walk in the park?  Or was it some prehistoric laborer who had a long day ahead of them that suddenly realized that the best tool for the job was “nothing�?

If you’re confused, you’re not alone.  What we’re talking about here is the concept of nothing, or an easier way to think about it might be to consider the concept of zero.  This question about nothing is tied to the larger question of whether you think mathematics was discovered or invented.  I prefer the question on “nothing,â€� however, since it simplifies things.  There are some very abstract examples in mathematics that I say would be hard to argue are discovered.

To simplify things, let’s look at the counting numbers.  My guess is that most people would consider 1, 2, 3, 4, …, as naturally occurring and discovered objects.  Be careful, though.  Keep in mind that we grew up in a time well past the development of these numbers and their arithmetic rules.  There are tribes in the world that, even today, do not have such a number system.  The documentary The Story of 1 introduces us to the Walpri tribe of Australia, in which an elderly man is asked how many children he has.  Instead of answering “four,â€� as we would, he verbally lists the names of his children.  The same information is being conveyed, just not in the way we are used to.

I relate this to the lack of the word “yesâ€� in Chinese – at least as it is used in the English language.  In English, the word “yesâ€� can answer a variety of questions, but if you were to ask someone in Chinese if they are hungry, they will answer “hungryâ€� or “not hungryâ€� rather than answering “yesâ€� or “no.â€�  If you then ask if they want to eat pizza, they will say “wantâ€� or “don’t want.â€�

As far as nothing, or “zeroâ€� is concerned, we have grown up in a time and place where we are so comfortable with the idea of zero that it is hard to imagine otherwise, but the idea of representing “nothingâ€� was, at one time, very controversial.  A literal “nothingâ€� can’t be seen, touched, or smelled, and that is exactly what zero is supposed to represent.  So strange was this idea, that it took hundreds of years to develop into the simple thing we recognize today.

I’ve noticed that language itself tells us that the number zero is more of a modern concept.  For example, if I were to ask the question, “how many elephants are in your house?â€� the answer would be “there are no elephants in my house.â€�  There could be some variation on what that answer might be, such as “there are noneâ€� or “there ain’t no elephants,â€� but one answer that would not be given is, “there are ZERO elephants in my house.â€�  I’ve asked dozens of bilingual people how it works in their first language and so far no one has said the word for zero would be used.  (Google’s translator says the phrase translates to “no hay elefantes en mi casaâ€� in Spanish, but all I remember from my Spanish class is “no tengo dinero.â€�)

According to the MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, zero first began making an appearance as a place keeper.  The archive points out that the number 216 may not have meant two-hundred-sixteen, as we see it today.  Instead, it might have meant 2,160 or 2,106.  To figure out what was meant, the context of the number needed to be understood.  The website gives a nice example, stating,

“If I take a bus to a nearby town and ask what the fare is then I know that the answer ‘It’s three fifty’ means three pounds fifty pence. Yet if the same answer is given to the question about the cost of a flight from Edinburgh to New York then I know that three hundred and fifty pounds is what is intended.â€�

All this makes me think that “nothing� was invented.  Just like mathematics as a whole, the development of “nothing� was as much about the personalities who developed it as it was about “nothing� itself.

So what do you think?  Was “nothing� discovered or was it invented?


About the Author

James Gray has been with Community College of Aurora for many years in a variety of capacities, including being a member of the 1994 graduating class. He holds a master’s degree in Mathematics from the University of Colorado at Boulder and is currently the Chair of the Mathematics Department at CCA.  


  1. Tony Lack

    June 15, 2012

    It is true that there “is nothing” in our empirical experience that would give us the idea of nothing, since any experience we have, real or imagined, is experience “of something”.
    However, our existential experience does contain an element of nothingness, our awareness of our own death.

    The idea of negation, in logic or math, marks the absence of something. That idea of negation makes it possible to conceive of the differences between things or numbers, in both spatial and temporal senses. But the idea of negation is not derived cognitively. The idea of negation comes about through our awareness of nothingness, which is different from ‘nothing’. Our awareness of nothingness is part of our being-toward-death. We sometimes feel uneasy, or anxious and our anxiety forces us to recognize ourselves as beings-toward-death, as finite, and therefore. Anxiety forces an encounter with the nothing. It makes us aware that as living beings we contain our death. It is from this existential encounter with nothingness (which is an ontological issue) that we derive our (epistemological) idea of ‘negation and our logical ideas of zero.

    Wasn’t it in India, the region so saturated with metaphysical philosophy and forms of mystical specualtion, that the idea of zero emerged?

  2. Edward P. O`Brien

    March 12, 2012

    The concept of nothing and its relativity to mathematics is an old twisting puzzle that has many ways to view it. Nothing is a MEASUREMENT. If we were to say,� what came first, the chicken or the egg?� It would basically be the same thing.
    What was there before the big bang and if there was something could it be measured. The event horizon of an explosion 13.7 billion years ago would have been counted as “1� and the event before that, “0.�
    There are some who believe that “Zero� is an actual particle. “The Boson Higgs Particle� is a sub atomic particle that science suggests will help solve the theory of dark matter or anti matter. If the particle is discovered, it would suggest that 1 unit of light matter equals 1 unit of dark matter allowing for the cancellation, hence zero.
    At this point in mathematical development, “zero� is used as a marker in liner equations. It is neither odd nor even.
    At this point in scientific development, “nothing� is used to measure mass. If there is nothing then there is no mass.
    At this point in scientific inquiry, if dark matter does exist, there is no “Nothing.� What we once thought was empty, was full the whole time- with dark matter.
    Maybe when we build an atom smasher big enough to find the Boson Higgs particle, we will have our answer.
    Eddie O`Brien

  3. Eileen Blasius

    February 23, 2012

    MacBeth comes to mind: “[Life] is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”
    Can “nothing” be replaced with “zero”? I don’t think so….

  4. Daniel Sandoval

    February 22, 2012

    “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could” thus nothing is nothing in itself. Of course there is “The Nothing” from “The Never Ending Story”. One could say that nothing is that which we cease to believe in. Sorry for turning this into a philosophical discussion. Good luck on this one James!

    • James Gray

      February 23, 2012

      My goodness. My younger brother watched the Never Ending Story a thousand times when he was young. Bad memories…especially the theme song!!!!!

      As far as the philosophical discussion, I’ll leave that to Billy Preston who said, “nothing from nothing leaves nothing, and you gotta have something if you want to be with me.”

  5. Jonathan

    February 21, 2012

    The universe Is
    All we see, we discover
    And invent Nothing.

  6. wayne

    February 21, 2012

    nothing had to be invented or we would still have nothing to stand for nothing, which isn’t convenient at all. nothing is experiential. we know it when we don’t see it don’t eat it don’t feel it don’t smell it don’t hear it. we often think of nothing and we often have nothing to do, which, it turns out, is almost always something but we can’t call it that. we need nothing. nothing was not provided for us, so we had to invent it. it’s not for nothing we invented nothing. zero is my hero!

    • James Gray

      February 21, 2012

      I totally agree! Nothing is so valuable that there’s nothing more important than it.

  7. Maura

    February 21, 2012

    Your blog post reminds me of this recent Nissan commercial:

    • James Gray

      February 21, 2012

      Nice video! I like the line that says, “suddenly, zero starts adding up.” Very much related to calculus!!!

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