Software Musings

Not a Number (NaN)

Posted on: 10/12/2006

On his blog Shtetl-Optimized (note spelling of “optimised”), Scott Aaronson has announced the winner of the 2006 Shtetl-Optimized Math Journalism Award—this is admittedly the first such award but no doubt, over the years, it will increase in importance to become a sort of Pulitzer Prize for Maths Journalists. The award has gone to Ben Moore of the BBC for his report on the amazing new discovery about dividing by zero.

For the ironically-challenged I should perhaps mention that Aaronson’s article is tongue-in-cheek.

I bring this up because, earlier this week, a colleague, having read the report of the major mathematical break-through which had solved “a problem tackled by the famous mathematicians Newton and Pythagoras without success” asked me on the way to lunch what it was about. I had missed the report but apparently correctly deduced its contents.

Now, we may mock journalists for their lack of appreciation of even the most basic mathematics, that’s fair game. But what about history? I’ve been googling without success for a connexion between Pythagoras and division by zero. Does anyone know of one or did Ben Moore just name the only two mathematicians a school child would know about?

By the way, included in the string of comments on the BBC article, someone has raised the profound question of whether it is possible to multiply by 0. If I create a new branch of mathematics based on multiplying by zero and getting zero (except for multiplying by the new nullity), will I get my name on the BBC website? I certainly remember working on the old CDC6600 computers which worked with 1s rather than 2s complement arithmetic. 5 – 5 used to give zero (reasonably enough) whereas -5 + 5 gave minus zero.

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Disclaimer

The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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