Issue 202: 2019 05 16: Nothing

16 May 2019


The power of zero.

By Neil Tidmarsh

Some staggering figures are coming out of India as the six weeks and seven phases of its general election (the world’s biggest ever election in the world’s biggest democracy) draw to a close.  Nine hundred million registered voters; four million voting machines; one million polling stations; eight thousand candidates; two thousand parties; 543 seats in parliament; and, apparently, would-be bribes worth more than £400 million seized by the police.

Amazing as they are, however, none of these statistics is as extraordinary as the figure which came out of India more than one thousand years ago, a figure which in many ways is their opposite – a brand new mathematical symbol and the concept it represents: ‘0’, zero, nothing.  And several stories in the news this week suggest that the idea of ‘nothing’ is as powerful and puzzling as ever.

First, an incident in Kazakhstan.  This Central Asian country has a dubious record on human rights.  Demonstrations are broken up, opposition leaders risk prosecution, activists are imprisoned and protestors detained.  Nevertheless, a young activist called Aslan Sagutdinov stood in the central square of the city of Oral last week, holding a placard.  On the placard he had written… nothing.  It was completely blank.  Just an empty white card.

Within five minutes, however, he was surrounded by police and confronted by a local government official, the mayor’s advisor on internal affairs.  He was detained and questioned by the police, but one can imagine their confusion over this encounter with the power of zero.  Mr Sagutdinov asked them what he had done wrong, and they scratched their heads and muttered that they’d “figure things out”.  Eventually they let him go without charge, after warning him “Write something on the placard and then we’ll see what we do with you”.

But Mr Sagutdinov had made his point: even demonstrating about absolutely nothing is enough to get you detained in Kazakhstan.

Next, North Korea.  Recent photographs of the Korean peninsula taken at night by spy satellites have proved illuminating in more ways than one.  South Korea can be seen ablaze with lights, defining its outline against the darkness of the surrounding sea as clearly as a map.  China is ablaze with lights.  But between those two countries? Nothing, just a big, dark, empty space, as dark and empty as the seas in the rest of the photo.  Thousands of square miles of nothing, so it seems.

Analysts have interpreted this blackout as proof that North Korea’s energy shortage is so acute that its economy is on the point of collapse.  Calculations indicate that the country’s fading nocturnal luminosity over the last five years proves that the economy has shrunk by over 10% throughout the country and by almost 20% in Pyongyang.

Other evidence does seem to support such conclusions.  Droughts have reduced the output of North Korea’s hydro-electric plants.  It’s dependent on other countries for oil and natural gas, but imports of such fuels have been capped by sanctions in recent years.  Reports of severe shortages – and even of potential famine – are emerging, and Kim Jong-un’s recent visit to Moscow was generally reckoned to be a cap-in-hand attempt to break the country’s economic isolation.

Other analysts, however, have been more cautious, pointing out that North Korea has huge coal reserves and that mining activity, being underground, wouldn’t show up at night, and that the contrast with other countries which do have oil refineries is exaggerated and misleading because that activity produces a disproportionate amount of light.  And, of course, North Korea deliberately conducts a huge amount of its business underground precisely to hide it away from the prying eyes of spy satellites, and has built an unparalleled and extensive system of tunnels and subterranean bunkers for that purpose.

Next, an underground mystery closer to home – a blank in Essex.  Newspapers this week reported on “Southend’s Tutankhamun”, the grave of a sixth-century Anglo-Saxon prince discovered at Prittlewell in 2003 by archaeologists who have just published their research and conclusions.  The finds are spectacular – a gold buckle, gold crosses, gold cloth, a garnet-studded wooden lyre, a painted wooden box, a sword and shield, glass vessels, copper bowls, a flagon which came from the Middle East, etc.  Most of these artefacts were originally hung from the wooden walls of the burial chamber, and the body (identified only by a few traces of tooth enamel – the rest of it had completely decayed away) was also laid out along one of the walls.  An artists’ illustration reconstructing the chamber shows the middle of the chamber as pretty empty, however.  There’s nothing there; it’s a blank, as far as the archaeological record goes.  The excavators at the time were a bit concerned that there might have been something there which escaped them, having completely disappeared in the intervening one and a half thousand years.  But that puzzling blank gives the imagination an infinite and exciting space in which to roam.  What might have been buried there?  A banquet for the prince to share with the gods in the afterlife? Unfortunate slaves dispatched to the next world to look after the prince’s needs as they’d looked after them in this world?  A horse?  A dragon?

Lastly, to that ultimate zero – the infinite nothingness of outer space; a glorious and pristine emptiness under threat by mankind’s growing habit of using it as a junk yard.  Did you spend the long, cold nights of last winter scanning the dark sky for the distant twinkle of the Orbital Reflector, the world’s first space sculpture, on its orbit 350 miles away from Earth?  If you did, in response to reading Statue Envy (Shaw Sheet issue 177, 18 November 2018), I apologise.  You would have watched in vain.  The Orbital Reflector never appeared.  This week, the solution to the mystery of its disappearance was revealed.  The sculpture (by artist Trevor Paglen) was packed into a box on a satellite which was delivered into space by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in December; but the US government’s record 35 day shut-down from December 22 (remember the impasse between Congress and the President over the bill for that wall?) meant that the Federal Communications Commission was closed when the message should have been sent to the satellite to inflate and release the sculpture.  By the time government departments were up and running again, it was too late.

Nothing came of that, then.  That space count-down really did end in a resounding zero.  President Trump didn’t get funding for his Wall, and the glorious “0” of space wasn’t troubled by that threatened “+ 1” of space junk either.


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