IUB#2: ‘Nothing’

What can we learn from nothing? New Scientist’s book compile curious studies and results coming from the concept of nothing.

Nothing_BookCoverAnti-matter, anaesthesia, superconductors, advanced calculus, placebo, wisdom teeth, male nipples, absolute zero. Some of the subjects of this book. In common, the concept of nothing, or the disruption of looking into things that are not quite there.

Isn’t it the principle of innovation – coming up with concepts that do not exist just yet? The book brings and interesting view of how humanity develop the concept of zero; and the barriers it faced in Europe. In this post, I will also explore this story’s parallels with the ‘modern’ clashes with Uber and taxis around the globe.

Innovation – the need for zero

New Scientist’s editor start the argument.

‘I used to have seven goats. I bartered three for corn; I gave one each on my three daughters as dowry; one was stolen. How many goats do I have?’ No, it’s not a tricky question. For centuries, humanity didn’t have the capacity to provide an answer.

Zero came about around 300 BC on Babylonia. They were the first to understand zero as a number. Since around Babylonia-zero1800 BC they had a counting system similar to our 1 to 9 digits but on base of 60. To differentiate the equivalent of ‘109’ from ‘19’ they used only a gap. From 300 BC, nobody knows exactly why, something changed but a symbol appeared to fill the missing places on the calculations.

Zero was then invented as a number but not as a symbol.

Disruption – going beyond the numbers

India, around 600 AC. An astronomer started playing with numbers – including zero – as abstract quantities. From adding a new layer, he was capable to stretch the questions and system that Greeks and other civilisations before him missed out. Zero as a symbol was created. Finally, the ‘goat’ question could be answered. Zero as a symbol of ‘nothingness’, and then negative numbers, were created.

Reactions and acceptance – Users and authorities on opposite sides

Let’s go now to Europe, 1200 AC. Books and publications about Hindu-Arabic numerals (with its ‘zero’) were been published by mathematicians and bishops who have travelled outside the continent. Such 9-digit system differed from the Roman notation overspread on the region.

Well, merchants and bankers were convinced of the usefulness of Hindu-Arabic system. The governing authorities, not so much. In 1299, Florence in Italy banned such system from the fear of fraud. It was too easy to inflate the number’s value highly just by adding a digit on the right.

The innovation brought by this numeric system (and the disruption that zero represented) was written off the legality, on an attempt to sustain the order and the status quo.

Is any familiarity solely a coincidence?

Let’s jump to 2015 and the recent news on Uber entering new markets.

No, I’m not saying that Uber is as important as the invention of zero. On the contrary (but this is another article discussion). But the reaction from existing ‘authorities’ is. Users praised the convenience, price and quality of service. Taxi unions and governments abolish licences based on the ‘unfair competition’ and problems for the mainstream competitors already in place.


Zero was only accepted in Europe on the 17th century, after the Copernican revolution put (for good) Earth on its non-centric place in relation to the Sun. It is hard to point a single event as cause, as explained on the book. But one of the reasons was the nascent Cartesian system, where dimensions and positions were relative to a reference. Any engineer student soon realise how easy any calculation becomes when the reference is zero in this system.

Back to Uber’s case, like zero, the concept, the question is already out there. And the ‘better’ and most ‘useful’ system will prevail. And differently from the 17th century, cycles of innovation are much faster.

My guess is on the disruptive idea (being Uber or the next big think on this market). Why? Because of this:


This is a Brazilian newspaper that says: ‘[Uber] App grows on Sao Paulo’s outskirts with less waiting time than taxis’. Outskirts in Brazil is where the lower income population lives. It is where the largest number of Brazilians are. It is where the most marginalised people from mainstream services and governments are. It is where the driven force behind the economic grow on the last decade is.

Similarly, many other countries and their outskirts exists will push better and inclusive services, powered by their mobile artillery. But this is also another new discussion.


IUB – Insights from Unexpected Books. Lessons about change and entrepreneurship from unconventional places. Regularly, a new book or article is revisited and some cool ideas are shared. Collaborate with suggestions and comments. I’ll be pleased to hear from you at hello@entrepreneurlog.com.

About the author: nprieto