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Chapter 1

Out of Nothing, Something 2002 11.1 Spring

zero [Fr. zero <It. zero < Ar. sifr, cipher] the symbol or numeral 0, nothing, the lowest point, without measurable value. cipher [ME. cifre < OFr. cyfre <ML. cifra < Ar. sifr, a cipher, nothing < safara, to be empty] zero, a person of no importance or value, a nonentity, a system of secret writing based on a key, or set of predetermined rules or symbols, to use secret writing. Last week, I went to the library, hardly expecting to find a book to read which would change the way I viewed the world. The Universal History of Numbers by Georges Ifrah (ISBN 0-471-375683) did just that. This one volume, encyclopedic in scope and filled with history, philosophy, and wisdom, demonstrates how our western civilization learned to count and what to count. This wonderful book shows us a mirror, reflecting our human brilliance and ridiculousness. When I finished, I laid the text down and could not decide whether to bask in the glow of mankind’s intelligence or hide in the dark, so as not to be discovered for what fools humans often are. Where do you think our numbers came from? Did the Arabs invent the Arabic numbers that we use now? When did Europeans quit counting with Roman numerals? Why were people burned alive at the stake for using zeroes in their arithmetic? In the middle ages, why was a person of no account called a “cipher”? What do the Devil and Pope Sylvester II of the Roman Catholic Church have to do with the way we count hamburgers at Burger King? Why did Montaigne, the Frenchman who developed the genre of essay writing, 17


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say he was embarrassed to admit that he never learned to count or do mathematics? Who was Gerbert of Aurillac, and why should we thank him every time we count our fingers and toes? I don’t consider myself a mathematician, never have and never will. I can balance my checkbook, when there is money in it, but do not ask me how many zeroes there are in one quadrillion. I am just grateful to have nine numbers and a zero to play with before April 15, each year. Europeans must have felt something like this in the fifteenth century, too. They thought any French or German university would suffice if the student wanted to learn addition or subtraction, but if the student wanted to learn multiplication and division, only an Italian university would do. Arithmetic was “an obscure and complex art,” and if one wanted to have as much knowledge as the average high school senior of today, then the serious student of the 1400s would need to acquire a PhD. Because so few people in any European country knew how to use numbers, a specialist was required, and it would take him several hours to perform a multiplication which a student today can do in a few minutes. It is little wonder that skilled abacists were thought to have supernatural powers. Samuel Pepys graduated from Cambridge University in England, became a civil servant, and later worked for the Admiralty where he was in charge of naval procurement in 1662. Although he was highly educated for his day, he could not perform the calculations for the purchases of timber made by his office. Eventually, he did learn, with the help of a tutor, and was so proud of himself that he tried to teach his wife addition, subtraction, and multiplication, but he knew better than to try to teach her long division. Gerbert of Aurillac (France) was a Catholic priest and “one of the most prominent scientific personalities” of the Middle Ages. He was born in 945 CE and spent his whole life in the church. Eventually, he became adviser to Pope Gregory V, Archbishop of Reims, Archbishop of Ravenna, and finally, Pope Sylvester II, from 999 until his death in 1003. When Gerbert was a young monk with a thirst for knowledge, his brilliant mind absorbed lessons from the Arabic schools he attended in Spain, and he disguised himself as a Muslim pilgrim to enter Arab universities. When he returned to France, he brought with him the techniques of modern arithmetic and was the first person to introduce Arabic numerals to Europe. It would take several centuries for Europe 18


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to accept the first nine numerals and several more centuries to use the zero. The Roman past was so admired throughout Europe that the people could not accept any other numbering system. Gerbert’s bishop said the zero was too easy to use and was sent from the Devil, so for their own protection, it could not be used by the common people. Mysticism, sin, hell, salvation, philosophy, and religious dogma were all under ecclesiastical control, which served to restrict intellectual liberation for centuries. The Arabic numbers, because they were so easy to use, “reeked of magic and the diabolical.” This French monk was labeled an alchemist and a sorcerer who sold his soul to Lucifer when he visited the Saracens. In 1648, papal authorities reopened Pope Sylvester’s tomb (645 years after his death) to see if it was still possessed by the Devil, because he brought back the Arabic numbers. Although the Crusades did not accomplish for the Christians what was intended, defeating the Muslims, several surprising things benefiting Europe were achieved when they reached the walls of Jerusalem. Because so many clerks traveling with the armies came in contact with Arabic arithmetical methods, Gerbert’s numerals were finally assimilated into regular accounting practices. Europeans could not impose their religion on the Middle East by force, but the Arabs finally taught the Europeans how to count quickly, accurately, and successfully, using the tradition they learned from the Indians more than a thousand years before. A sleepy-acting senior startled me one day in class, when he suddenly sat up in his seat and said loudly, “The only thing anyone needs to find wisdom is an open mind.” Gerbert of Aurillac would have understood, precisely.

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Chapter 2

So Many Questions 2002 11.2 Summer

On a sunny, spring day in May, a long time ago, I began an important journey to adulthood. Holding hands, two abreast, my third grade classmates and I marched like a parade down the Harlan Street sidewalk from old North School to the Lydia Brunn Woods Library. Little did I know this field trip would change my life. Ms. Heiser, our teacher, seemed a little more serious than she usually was. Her eyes glistened behind her dark-rimmed glasses. In her polite way, she was serious, and I sensed whatever was about to happen would be important, although, I had no idea why. We giggled and talked to each other about this great, new adventure, as we proceeded down the street. “What’s a library for?” I said. “To get books,” replied Carole. “I know that, but why do people have to have a whole building for books?” “Adults read a lot,” Bill answered. “But why do they read so much?” I wanted to know. “To get answers,” Jimmy smiled. “Well, why do they have to have so many questions?” I asked. “Because young men like you grow up some day, and they don’t change much,” Ms. Heiser smiled. “It is good to ask questions and want to know the answers. Smart people go to libraries, and good towns provide good libraries for their citizens. You are lucky to live in this town, because we have a fine library that you will be able to use all your life.” I did not talk much more on our walk. What Ms. Heiser said kept 20


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me thinking for the rest of the trip. Just as we began to sweat from the exertion, our group arrived at the front door of the library. We received a warning about being quiet when we entered, minding our manners, and not disturbing the adults. If we were good, we would have treats and orange juice, and then we could have twenty minutes to look for a book of our own to check out and take back to school. I knew about St. Peter, the Pearly Gates, and imagined going to Heaven must be something like entering the library. We left the heat of the day behind and entered into cooler air that was circulated by one fan. The librarians stood at attention, as we filed passed them. Only one smiled. I felt out of place but was eager to know what went on here, and I was curious if I would enjoy the experience. My mother and grandmother read all the time. Some days, they could not pull themselves away from their books, and I wondered if my other relatives read this much, too. I was afraid of becoming just like them, since we were related. My baseball game might suffer, if I became addicted to books like they were. I could not let that happen. I had a chip on my shoulder and an attitude. Passing through the library door, I remember thinking, “Well, this better be good. Show me any book that will make me want to read rather than play center field for my baseball team.” We received a brief tour of the first floor area reserved for adults and students in junior high and high school. Then the guide said, “You children will find your treats and your books upstairs. When you go to the second floor, walk quietly, not like elephants.” My schoolmates heard the word “treats” and headed upstairs at once. They did not remember the word “elephants.” We grouped together at the top of the stairs, drank our juice, and ate our cookies. I finished eating as quickly as I could, because I wanted to see the books. Some took their time eating, but I asked if I could start looking right away. The librarian smiled and let me start early. As I went down the hall, I could smell dust and the old books on the shelves. The rooms upstairs seemed dark and partially lit. I learned later that was one technique to keep patrons cool in the nonair-conditioned building. I went into one small room and then farther into a large room with bookcases from the floor to the ceiling. My jaw dropped open. “What kids are going to read all of these books?” As if she could read my mind, the librarian who helped prepare 21


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the treats for us, said loudly, “What book are you looking for, Mr. Martin?” She scared me, and I wondered how she knew my name. I impulsively belted back, “Baseball. I want to read about baseball.” Without any hesitation, she pulled me over to the far wall, took three books off the shelf, and said, “Here. You can sit on the floor and look at these, if you like.” In thirty seconds, she gave me three books, got me off my feet, saw that I was looking at them, and left to help someone else. I read a short chapter and liked it. I looked at the wall and read some of the other titles. The ones lower on the wall, the ones closest to me, were for children my age. The topics became more difficult, as my eyes rose higher and higher. What children would read the ones on the top shelves? I sat down, content to be cool, enjoying a book about something I understood, baseball, and thinking, “I could come back here, anytime. I could walk from home to the library. I would just cut across the park and walk up the street a few blocks. I wonder how long it would take me to read these three books. Would I return next week or the week after?” Ms. Heiser announced, “It is time to return to school. Let’s go downstairs and check out any books you want to take with you. Do not take any more than you want to carry all the way back to school.” I checked out all three of mine. It was a struggle to carry them back to school, but I didn’t mind. I felt a little older, as we walked down the street. My arms hurt a little when we returned to our classroom, because I was not used to carrying books that far. I did not mind. I knew the road to adulthood would require more effort than carrying these books, and the trip to maturity would be a lot longer and harder than my trip to the library was that day. Our class was a lot quieter after returning to our school than it was going to the library. Sally asked me what I thought of the experience. “Now, I know where my mother goes all the time,” I said. “I think the library is neat. Did you see all those books downstairs when we took the tour? I want to go back and look at the history books, encyclopedias, that huge dictionary, and those magazines. What was that card catalogue, anyway?” “You think too much,” Della said. “Do you suppose Heaven is like a colossal library?” I asked. “Do 22


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you think God sits around reading all day? Is that why he knows so much? Is that where Creation came from?” “What?” Janice wondered. “Do you think people could find answers to all of their questions in a library? Wouldn’t that be something? Did you see all those big books? The middle sized ones? The small ones? Would there be more information and better answers in the larger books than the smaller ones? If so, why don’t people just read the big ones? Larger books, more answers, smarter people? Why is the newspaper right across the street from the library? Do they work together? Wouldn’t ‘Hope’ be a great name for a librarian?”

Cute Baby Goslings · James Phelps

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