The Inexorable Rise of Absolutely Bugger All

Jim Barras 

"God made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness shows through." Paul Valery

As the so-called Credit Crash began to bite chunks out of the prostrate body of the western financial system and the debt clock in Wall St 'ran out of nothings', or so we were told. It struck me, that the debt clock, far from running out of nothings, had actually been a case of yet another zero taking out yet another one. Nothing, by the way, has been quietly superseding ones for some considerable time. Since around 1390 in fact, a date that is nowhere without nothing, as it happens.

The Renaissance is that period of history, that aforementioned year 1390 being a part of this period, describing the flowering of the arts and sciences at the end of the dark ages, when, after the fall of Constantinople, the Greek writings on philosophy, art, science and mathematics were rediscovered to reveal the ideas of the classical world long lost in the dark ages. These were furthermore added to, enhanced, developed and evolved by the writings of Islam. All these ideas converged on Florence, Italy, but they brought an extremely exotic stranger along. Nothing: The number Zero.

Nothing was a strange concept in the west at this time, the Greeks thought that if it doesn't exist, there's no point in talking about it, pragmatic if nothing else. Nothing there: nothing to talk about. The Christians didn't like it at all. After all, if God made the world out of nothing then nout, being pre-creation, you might say, is out, this being no place for Christians at all. Zero, to many Christians, was a kind of she-devil, definitely not on God's side. If though, God made the world out of nothing then that nothing isn't really nothing is it? At the very least, which it is by definition, nothing has a hell of a lot of potential. So it would prove.

Nothing came from India, and I don't mean that as a slur on that nation. Hinduism with its' concepts of emptiness and Nirvana didn't find the concept of Zero unsettling at all. So this was where Zero set up her stall. In time she set up stalls in Islam, making her way to Constantinople, flirted with the Greeks, and finally rolled up in Florence. In Florence, Zero found two very willing customers: bankers and mathematicians; Medici and Fibonacci. The bankers found that the numbers from Islam combined with Zero from India allowed them to count, usually upward. The Medicis loved to be able to count. Bankers, by and large, like counting, usually upwards. It was, in fact, the very success of this counting upwards that funded the Renaissance. After all, all this Art, Science, and Mathematics had to be paid for, kind of quaint idea when you think about it. I mean, you don't get all that Art, Science, and Mathematics for nothing, do you? Do you? Fibonacci took a little nothing and liberated Mathematics from the drudgery of counting, usually upwards. So Zero, Nothing, Absolutely Bugger All, fuelled banking and Mathematics, damn, should I give banking a capital? Yes, for now, I think I should, they did have capital back then after all, so, Banking it is. Anyhow, Banking and Mathematics are the twin engines of Western progress ever since. So, the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, all were based on nothing... nothing at all. Then again, is that so surprising? I mean, if nothing has the potential for the Universe, then the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment are, well, easy street comparatively. Nothing to it really.

I've always said that 'I know a lot about a little, a little about a lot, and bugger all about everything else.' I guess it's that 'bugger all' that fascinates me, hence the title. It was semi-conductor physics where I first came upon the paradox of 'bugger all'. First we were told about electrons moving and then we were told that what was left after the electrons moved were holes. Then they began to talk about the holes moving, which was a tad strange, kind of like rather than watching the cars go by you watch the spaces in between them. I never fully got my head round that, but here goes. The negatively charged cars/electrons move forwards, the 'positively charged' spaces/holes move backwards. The holes are bigger and therefore slower than the electrons, hence the forward motion of the cars. When the holes/spaces become the same size as the cars/electrons we get a traffic jam. Now this hole isn't really positively charged other than relative to the electrons negative charge that has been subtracted from it. How do you subtract from a hole? Maybe you have to be negative first.

The Beatles got there first,' four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire.' I doubt they're positive though, maybe no electrons around. Essentially what I'm driving at is that as soon as you begin to approach the environment of 'holes', 'emptiness', 'Zero', 'Nothingness', things get strange, exotic. Holes started turning up all over the place; punch cards for early computers where the holes carried the information; computer tape the same. Around the same time as the Beatles were doing their stuff Zero had a bit of a coup.

After three hundred years of bankers using it as a means for counting, usually upwards, the USA and the USSR began a space race where they tried to fire rockets into space, usually upwards. They fired these rockets upwards after a countdown, where the countdown target was Zero, and the upward target was space. Emptiness at both ends or what? It turns out that space, that final frontier, isn't quite empty. Well, of course not, if s full of stars! Ah, but I mean, in between the stars, that black stuff that surrounds our planet. The vacuum isn't empty at all. The vacuum of space is positively seething with energy, a bubbling sea of virtual particles entering existence for fleeting moments to disappear back into the nothingness whence they came. Reappear, disappear, reappear, disappear; the Cheshire cat's in residence here. Nature abhors a vacuum, so the Cheshire cat had to be managed, mastered even. MBA's had appeared and disappeared before, but now they were back, somebody had to take charge of all these zeros and who better than the Masters of Bugger All.

This, as mentioned briefly before, was also the beginnings of the computer age, where Zero finally made her supreme move. The basis for the language of the computer is, at the fundamental level, strings and loops of Ones and Zeros: 100001110011001001110110010111000000001010101010... In this world where the entire virtual world is created 1 and 0 are equivalent. My, my, has nothing come a long way? Like the vacuum of deep space this virtual world started to leak into the real world, that is to say the unitary to Zero equivalence began to leak through. At the same time, with the increasing power of the computer systems available to the financial sectors whereby transactions could be changed far faster than the eye could see, everything getting faster and faster, the banks finding it progressively more difficult counting upwards, so they started counting forwards, anything to avoid counting downwards. They called for the Masters of Bugger All to help them out, having, unfortunately, found themselves short of Is. The MBAs advised them to grab as many of the leaking unitary equivalent Zeros as they could, though they asked to be paid in ones themselves of course. After all, they advised, they were equivalents weren't they? More unfortunately, these Zeros, once in our real world as it were, reverted back to nothingness. More unfortunately still, they had to keep doing it again and again, lending out Is and keeping Os as balance, which, of course, they don't. This is what they call leverage. Archimedes said, "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.", but then, I don't think innumerable zeros balancing lots of ones, were quite what Archimedes had in mind, though the moving the world bit was nonetheless achieved.

What tricks does Zero hold for us now? What exactly is the nature of nothing? Nothing, like her distant cousin, Infinity, is a limit, but a limit that is more exotic than Infinity. Infinity can never be reached and neither can Zero, but unlike Infinity, Zero can be passed through, to the negative and the complex, but nothing ever stops at Zero, so when we get there we'll find we're only passing through.

So the bankers can't count upwards any more, they kept counting forwards as long as they could in order to avoid the countdown. As in all countdowns, the target is Zero. To paraphrase Paul Valery: The banks made their financial world out of nothing, but the nothing shows through. Nothing to look forward to; nothing to come. We'll all of us be Masters of Bugger All soon.