Home > Worship > In praise of zero

In praise of zero

November 2, 2011

by Joe Hyam

During the funeral service a bird flew
into the glass door of the chapel with a thud
and, having interrupted the eulogy,
also departed this life.
To monitor the flight of birds
in consideration of what is received
(for which we should be truly thankful),
to count and name their variations,
their prey and predators,
is reason enough to be on Earth.

Numbers are the one certain thing:
and of numbers, The One is superior
to all others, excepting “The Zero,
in which lies a great and sacred mystery”.
Inside The Zero is the ache
of things longing to be alive:
the eager whisper of beak and claw
within the breaking shell.

Small waves creep up the expectant shore,
nudge and smack the rocks where sea bass
soon will nose the swaying wrack,
and overhead gulls shout “mine, mine”
to the spreading territories of the sea.

In holes in the wet sand, razor clams
wait for the water to cover them
to emerge in safety and learn what’s up,
unless red billed oyster catchers, ankle-deep,
come first to hook them out; or comes a man
to squirt salt water with a plastic bottle
into the holes to make the molluscs think
that the tide has risen, and captures his lunch.

Of the 8.7 million species of living things
deemed to be on Earth (viruses excluded
and incidental extinctions), these few are data
to be tabulated, the answers to questions
and the questions themselves, as the pinhead
whereon they swarm and multiply
vanishes into absence, into the absence,
the absolute absence of zero.

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Joe Hyam lives in Tunbridge Wells, Kent where he grows vegetables and writes poetry. His blog, Now’s the Time, records the pleasures and surprises of existence in a particular place in troubled times.

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  1. November 4, 2011 at 4:19 am

    I have to be careful here. This site is probably a meeting point for people keen to escape the effects of television, not to invoke them. Twenty, thirty years ago I was unaware of the mathematical significance of zero and I was less well-informed about the natural world. Now, through television, I am better able to respond to the observations in your poem and I am not sure (aware as I am of my own indolence) that this could have happened any other way. So, for me, this is a poem addressed to people living in the twenty-first century which may be a modest claim except that I suspect I am not alone.

    And what a start! That thud, once heard never forgotten – such a gentle sound, so fatal. A collision between the natural world and a device mankind has created so that the natural world may be more easily observed. A macrocosm of quantum mechanics: the observer, observing, becomes part of the process.

    I like the gulls as Greek chorus but most of all I like the implication that measuring and categorising the phenomena that only poets were supposed to be capable of handling does not subtract from the wonders they offer. Data are, in any case, neutral but a collection of data, revealing a new pattern, ceases to be neutral and becomes a wonder itself, adding wonder on top of wonder. And, at the heart this wonderful irony the fact that data being mathematical cannot proceed without an awareness of the absence of data.

    I wanted to round this off with a quote from Lord kelvin but couldn’t find it. However I did find the following “lines” (a euphemism often used when the citer doubts whether the citation is in fact poetry) written by Kelvin. If I say you’ve improved on him you may think this faint praise. But remember, Lord K, is sufficiently well established in the scientific pantheon to have had a unit of measurement named after him. Whereas I would like to score your poem as 7/10 Keats I am not able to do this so far.

    Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides;
    Go measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
    Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
    Correct old Time, and regulate the sun

  2. November 5, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    This is wonderful, Joe, one of your best. And I’m so thrilled to be on the same page here with you, friends that we are, and now neighbours, though in reality living on almost opposite sides near different seas. What a world we live in and love, yet fearful for its future.

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