A Container for Nothingness

Two of my favorite jokes rarely get any laughs. I learned them both as a kid growing up in France. The first goes:

Why do Belgians sleep with two water glasses by their bed, one full and one empty?

One is in case they wake up in the middle of the night feeling thirsty. The other is in case they wake up in the middle of the night not feeling thirsty.

Of the two, this is the one that usually gets at least a chuckle. The second is dirtier, but is almost guaranteed to get no laughs at all:

One guy says to another guy: “You know, when I fart it smells pretty bad but it doesn’t make any noise. Isn’t that interesting?”

The other responds: “Well, what a coincidence! When I fart it’s the exact opposite, it makes a ton of noise but doesn’t smell at all!”

At that moment one of them feels a tap on his shoulder from a stranger. “Excuse me, gentlemen, but I was just sitting over there and couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. I thought I should join in, because it just so happens that when I fart, it makes a lot of noise, and smells terrible! Isn’t that extraordinary?”

Out of nowhere, a weak little voice speaks up. Another stranger. “My friends, I’m so sorry to interrupt. I was just walking by and couldn’t avoid hearing your fascinating conversation. Please forgive the intrusion, but I just had to. You see, when I fart, it doesn’t smell in the least, and honestly makes no noise at all!”

To which the three other men turn around and ask, indignant: “So why do you fart, then?”

I love these jokes because they’re really dumb in appearance, but are in fact profound. To me they’re actually the very same joke, in that they both wrestle with whether it makes sense to have containers for nothingness. Is a fart a fart if it doesn’t smell or make noise? Is it brilliant to have an empty glass by your bedside table, or just plain stupid?

It took humans a long time to understand that it’s not as stupid as it sounds, and that it could be useful to have a container for nothingness — otherwise known, in math, as the number zero, the numerical equivalent of reaching for a number without actually wanting one. Several other cultures got there earlier, but in Europe it remained elusive well into the AD era. From Wikipedia:

The ancient Greeks had no symbol for zero (μηδέν), and did not use a digit placeholder for it. They seemed unsure about the status of zero as a number. They asked themselves, “How can nothing be something?”, leading to philosophical and, by the medieval period, religious arguments about the nature and existence of zero and the vacuum.

As both jokes make clear, it’s no simple thing to accept that an idea that seems absurd on its face — that nothing can indeed be something — could in fact prove to be tremendously useful. Math simply wouldn’t have gotten very far without it.

Contrast these profound jokes, lowbrow in appearance, with another joke, this one seemingly sophisticated, but depending solely on one of the dumbest puns out there:

René Descartes is finishing lunch in a Paris bistro. The server comes up to him and asks if he’d like a cup of coffee. Mr. Descartes ponders this for a moment, and responds: “I think not”. And suddenly, he vanishes!

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3 Responses to A Container for Nothingness

  1. Bernard says:

    What is red but invisible to the human eye?
    No tomatoes.

    Most accounts appear to claim that zero was not depicted mathematically until much later than the Greeks:
    “The development of zero throughout the world. The first recorded zero appeared in Mesopotamia around 3 B.C. The Mayans invented it independently circa 4 A.D. It was later devised in India in the mid-fifth century, spread to Cambodia near the end of the seventh century, and into China and the Islamic countries at the end of the eighth. Zero reached western Europe in the 12th century”
    (Source https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-the-origin-of-zer/?redirect=1)
    Does this mean that the Greeks denoted zero with literally nothing?

    Finally, the following isn’t a zero joke, but it cleverly reflects the qualities of binary digits, something and nothing. It’s perhaps my favourite maths themed gag:
    There are only two types of people in this world. Those who can extrapolate from a limited set of data.

    • dantepfer says:

      Ha ha ha absolutely love that last joke, and the first one is nice too! Thanks much, Bernard, and best to you.

  2. George Thomas Wilson says:

    Good post. Thanks!

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