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The Great Fire Wall of China

As my regular readers know, I am writing from China these days, and have been doing so four years so far. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. In fact, starting in late September 2014, China began interfering with many Google-owned entities of which Blogspot is one. If the blog seems to go dark for a while, please know I will be back as soon as I can get in again. I am sometimes blocked for many weeks at a time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can gain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Saturday, March 12, 2016

Zero is a Real Number

Zero is a real number. Could such a headline possibly be click bait? If so, it is pretty lame. Of course everyone knows zero belongs to the set of real numbers. The problem is the word “real.” A sentence such as “zero is a real number” immediately puts people into mathematics mode wherein they consider the word “real” in only its mathematical sense. Sometimes people recall set theory theory and the curious case of a set containing only one member, zero, as opposed to an empty set with no members. The problem here is that set theory leads people to objectify zero. They think of zero as an object rather than a number.

Zero is a real number. When the truth of this statement dawns, the world changes forever. If you are thinking, “Well, of course zero is a real number. What a stupid waste of time to write about it,” you may be one of those people for whom the realization of this truth in all its depth and beauty has not yet occurred.

My student teacher this year was one of those people in September. 27 years old and she never knew zero was a real number. She thought she knew it, but she betrayed herself when she began teaching first graders to answer the question “how many?.” Although she never explicitly said so, she gave her charges to understand that the minimum answer to the question was “one.” I surprised her by reminded her that “zero” is a legitimate answer to the question, “how many?” She did not quite believe me. “Think,” I said, “Of a time when you may have looked for eggs in the refrigerator and found there were zero eggs.” Her eyes widened. “Oh...yeah!” she said, “I hadn’t really thought about it.” I reminded her that when she set up her counting situations, to let zero often be the answer. Children come to school already preconditioned to disregard zero. Their parents and preschool teachers have given them 6 years of experience ignoring zero. One of the first math tasks at school is to undo that misconception.

Zero is a real number. Tax season provides a perfect example. Consider two taxpayers. One person may complete a tax return and find that his tax liability is zero. Therefore when he pays his taxes, he pays zero dollars. Another person does not even complete the form. One person paid no taxes. However, the other one did pay his taxes, and he paid zero dollars. “Zero” and “nothing” are not the same thing. Set theory was supposed to make this distinction clear, but too often we go into math mode and miss the point.

Zero is a real number. I will never forget the day in November when this realization struck my student teacher. She was in the middle of teaching first grade math when she looked at me sitting in the back of the room and said incredulously, “Zero is a real number,” as if it were her own discovery and not something I had said again and again for more than two months.