STRANGE BUT TRUE- Love match: Why zero makes the world go 'round


DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q. It's a "duck" in cricket, "love" in tennis, and the number of goal keepers in a game of badminton; it's also the number of cabbages on Mars, hedgehogs that can speak Japanese, or fish fingers eaten by William Shakespeare. As a temperature of -273 Celsius, it is "absolute," the lowest possible with all heat and motion spent. Oddly, the Romans overlooked it in their system of numerals (I, II, III, IV, V...), and not until much later was the symbol introduced to the West. 

By itself, it doesn't amount to much, but combined with other numbers, it can add a googol of meaning or more. You can't divide by this number, though you can add it or subtract it, even multiply by it. Enough said. There is nought, zilch, nil chance you haven't yet zeroed in on this mystery number. –Z. Mostel

A. "Zero" it is, as in "absolute zero" to physicists eyeing the lowest possible temperature of -273 degrees Celsius, and in "googol" to mathematicians thinking of 1 followed by 100 zeroes, says Richard Phillips in Facts, Figures and Fiction. Importantly, zero allows the use of "place value" to represent numbers such as 60, 600, 6000 and on and on. The number apparently was invented independently in several different cultures, but not until the 12th century did it reach Western Europe.

Q. "Top gun" pilots have long worried about taking a turn too tightly and experiencing what is called g-LOC. What is this and what are its warning signs? –T. Cruise

A. Well, g-LOC, "Gravity-induced loss of consciousness," can occur when a pilot takes a turn with the head toward the center of a circle, as is normally done, causing blood pressure in the brain to drop, says Jearl Walker in The Flying Circus of Physics. Today's powerful and highly maneuverable jets make taking a turn too sharply all too likely, especially in a dogfight. When the plane's centripetal acceleration is 2 or 3 g's, the pilot feels heavy. At about 4 g's, the pilot's vision switches to black and white and narrows to "tunnel vision," where peripheral viewing disappears and only straight-ahead sight remains. If acceleration is maintained at 4 g's or increased, vision ceases, and soon the pilot becomes unconscious. G-LOC can strike without warning. "If the pilot does not regain consciousness in time, the plane will either stall or," Walker writes, "fly into the ground."

Q. "Suffix it to say" we live in a world where almost everyone is addicted to something, becoming maybe an alcoholic, chocaholic, foodaholic, or workaholic. What suffixes are best known by the techaholics among us? –N. Webster

A. Call them also webaholics (the Web), Twitterholics (Twitter), gameaholics (computer games in general), says Paul McFedries in IEEE Spectrum magazine. The suffix workhorse in these circles is "-ware," short for software, and spawning such classics as freeware (free software), shareware (software you can use before purchasing), and vaporware (announced but not delivered). Beerware you can get for the price of buying the developer a beer, terrorware is software used by terrorists, and wearware goes back a few years to an article about wearable computers.

Reading this, you are likely part of the literati (literary intelligentsia or educated class). At your computer you join the digerati (digital literati), or the geekerati (the elite of this group), maybe even the jitterati with a cup of caffeinated coffee on the side, or the blogerati (big-time bloggers), or the Twitterati (those with the most Twitter followers). The universe is certainly big enough to encompass the Googleverse, the Twitterverse, the gamerverse (gamers or gaming), plus the chatosphere (chat rooms and instant messaging), the spamosphere (junk e-mail messages), the blogosphere, the Webosphere.

And there's more, but perhaps by now you've had it with our lallapalooza of a suffixpalooza.

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Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@cs.com.

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