Thursday, September 6, 2018

Something or Nothing -- Thinking about Zero

     The site of the 2019 Bridges Math-Arts conference has been announced  -- it will meet in Linz, Austria next July.  This link leads to the archives of the 2018 and earlier conferences.  Each recent year a poetry reading (coordinated by Sarah Glaz) has been part of the Bridges activities -- and this year a poetry anthology also was compiled.  Here is a poem by Canadian poet Alice Major that was featured both in this year's reading and in the anthology  -- a poem that also appears, along with other math and science poems, in Major's latest collection, Welcome to the Anthropocene. (University of Alberta Press, 2018).  Major's poem examines death and, as it does so, explores various meanings of zero.

Zero divided by zero     by Alice Major

There is no right answer.
The trains of logic crash, annihilate
certainty. Zero is just as good an answer
as one. Nothingness or loneliness.
There is no right answer.    

The woman, Godelieve,
books an appointment to annihilate
herself.  An Antwerp euthanasia clinic.
A life too long, a brain too hurt.
Nothing is her answer.

The pastor sets himself on fire
in a Texas parking lot, annihilated
by grief for a world that cannot learn
kindness. He’s tried everything else
finds no other answer.

“Mental illness” – that’s one label
for the call to self-annihilation.
But is martyrdom, immolation,
never the sanest path, the kindest thing?
There is no right answer.

Zero divided by zero.
The past’s black hole annihilated,
divided by the null of future.
Suicide’s paradox: relief unfelt
by those who choose its answer.

Black holes are where
God divides by zero. Annihilated
light. All our singular arrangements
of matter reduced to one
undefinable answer.

My sister holds a vial
of danger, matter that could annihilate
her, but – divided into increments –
may let her sleep, let her breathe.
But there is no answer

for the anguish that strangles her,
for the losses that seem to annihilate
her past, divide her from a future
worth living. The vial’s round mouth
seems an answer.

Saint Godelieve, “God’s Love,” annihilated
by a cruel husband. Now God seems void
divided by a vacuum. Sometimes a thought
flares – Would it be easier to let her go?
Then the answer

No! My sister, oh my sister,
you terrify me. If you annihilate
this pain, then you divide us utterly.
You cannot be both zero and one.
There is no right answer.


  1. having also written a poem about the indeterminate ("L'Hospital" in Jan. 2017 J. of Humanistic Mathematics), I really love the intensity of this poem -- bravo, Alice!

  2. Thanks, Larry, for dropping by. And here is a link to the January 2017 issue of the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics -- where you can enjoy Larry's poetry and other items also: