Naught’s So Contentious

Egad, a pome with lines numbers, and notes

01. Imagine information equals wisdom?
02. I’d rather not. A case in point is Null.
03. There’s naught he does. Alone it seems he’s dumb
04. and only fit to see all places full.
05. Deciphering ones from tens until he’s numb,
06. our Null runs lines so long you want to cull
07. a million here, quadrillion there — adjust
08. the ciphers back to zero. What a bust.
09. Imagine information equals wisdom?
10. Can’t really hurt the world if you’ve the gall.
11. The antitoxin to being an empty coxcomb
12. is real numbers. Go on and count them all
13. from minus inf. while sitting on your wisdom
14. to inf. most plus. And when you’re in their thrall,
15. you’ll notice what gives me a specious pain:
16. they’re a special case out on the Argand plane.
17. You want more understanding to be wise?
18. Wisdom’s nothing that more facts revive.
19. We could get more facts, but getting wise defies
20. the piling on of data dumps. A hive
21. of hornets (‘not hive, nest,’ some pedant writhes)
22. is more, and less, than facts. It is alive.
23. A hive of bees’ beatitude depends
24. on blooms before they’re pressed between bookends.
25. You think I’m anti-wise. Well, now you’re cooking.
26. The physicists will someday wear a rut
27. so deep upon our foreheads they’ll fit a chip in
27. and factulate us with the total GUT.
29. You’ll have my facts, and I’ll have yours. We’ll tuck in
30. to bytes of lore from Albert back to Tut.
31. To be suffused with facts behind our eyes
32. will make us oh-so-boring but not wise.
33. ‘How arrogant,’ you tell me. ‘You’re short-sighted
34. to argue out of ignorance for more.’
35. I try on Gödel but you shout, ‘Benighted!’
36. You point out how I always seek the shore
37. when others (betters, you) have the boat righted
38. and urge all hands to board. The breakers’ roar
39. attracts me, cher. No need to analyse.
40. I’m going in to ride them. You be wise.


Title. Naught, non-existence and nothingness, also means zero (0). Such nothingness is controversial in a world of humans wanting instant answers and believing they are findable.

Line 02. Null personifies and illustrates the often overlooked importance of No-Thing. Null, meaning zero and nothing, determines the values of numbers.

Line 07. The difference between One, Ten , One Million and One Quadrillion is NOTHING! (A sub-example not in the poem but in my head as I wrote it: even our names for numbers are confusing; e.g., a British quadrillion is the fourth power of a million (1 followed by 24 ciphers) while in the U.S. and in France a quadrillion is the fifth power of a thousand (1 followed by 15 ciphers: 1 000 000 000 000 000).

Line 08. It intrigues me that cipher means both the mathematical zero denoting absence of quantity (a place holder), and also a nobody, a nonentity who has no influence or value. What a bust (the bursting of values back to One if you take away the nulls) is also slang for getting stopped, arrested: a party going flat if you remove the je ne sais quoi.

Line 11. A coxcomb (from the crest on a rooster’s head) is a conceited, foolish dandy who thinks he’s important because of his appearance.

Line 12. The real numbers are all numbers representable by an infinite decimal expansion; they are in a one-to-one correspondence with the points on a straight line that stretches from Minus Infinity to Plus Infinity.

Line 15. Specious not only fits this line, because a specious argument is not simply false but seems true, but it also sounds good to me when combined with ‘special’ on the next line.

Line 16. The Argand Plane is all possible points of the form X + Y(i), where X and Y are real and i is the basic imaginary unit equal to the square root of -1. Some of us call these points (e.g., 8 + 7i) Complex Numbers. The X axis defines the real parts of the numbers and the Y axis defines the imaginary parts. Counting Real Numbers along a line from minus infinity to plus infinity is simply the special case where y = 0. It’s strange that we generally think of only this special case as being ‘real.’

Line 28. Factulate is a nonce word I made from ‘facts’ and ‘inoculate’ (introduce a vaccine to produce immunity to a disease or to communicate a disease). Some physicists work on ‘unified field theories’ to define and relate what they call the basic forces in nature: Electromagnetism, Gravitation, Weak Interaction and Strong Interaction. ‘Grand unification theories’ (GUTs) attempt to unify all four of these. No one has ever verified a GUT. I have a gut feeling that there may be more than (or different than) four forces, that we concentrate on only a special case where y = 0 in some undiscovered equation.

Line 30. Albert Einstein and King Tut. The latter came to mind probably because of songs (Cole Porter?) inspired when Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s (c. 1350 BC.) until-then-unlooted tomb was discovered.

Line 32. I believe that our arrogance in believing that facts make us wise causes much of the damage we do to the world and to each other. So in an oblique way, this poem, first written in 1996 and often revised, is a wee cri de coeur. (cf. the 2014 article how politics makes us stupid)

Line 34. Twists within twists: telling myself that I am arrogant for arguing against their arrogance, and simultaneously arguing from a standpoint of ignorance for having more of the same.

Line 35. I am thinking here about stories I have read about Kurt Gödel’s proof that mathematics (and, to me, by extension, all knowledge systems) are and must be based in part on propositions that are not provable within mathematics (within the knowledge systems) itself.

Line 39. I changed hein in an earlier version to the New Orleans cher in thanks to Janet McConnaughey whose comments helped me improve this poem.

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