Zeros and Universes


What do you think if you notice that all the zeros in the book you’re reading have inverted stroke modulation? (The vertical parts are thinner than the horizontal parts.) You may think that there’s been a glitch in the font software. The moment of delight comes when you remember that the book you’re holding is A Universe From Nothing by physicist Lawrence Krauss who argues that the nature of nothing is quite different from what we thought: it is unstable and has to give rise to something. You may then think, as I first did, that the “0” glyph of the font has been modified for this purpose but the original Stempel Garamond design actually has zeros with inverted strokes. I bet someone was reminded of this fact and chose the typeface with this clever detail in mind, though I wasn’t able to find out who did the typesetting. Even if this is pure coincidence, it’s too good to go unnoticed.

To be honest, I view physics as a much respected distant elder in comparison to biology which is like a lover to me. Ever since I did my first readings on quantum physics and relativity, I’ve always felt the famous barrier of intuitive understanding – the limits of our cognitive machinery evolved to function in “the Middle World”. My approach to contemporary physics and its deep questions as a layperson has been an indifferent one: “Even if we arrive at new answers, I won’t be able to understand them” – in a Searlean sense.

Krauss’s book has somewhat changed that. First, while he surveyed the recent (last century) developments in physics and cosmology, he managed to make me understand many things that I hadn’t quite understood in my previous readings. Moreover, the book regenerated the curiosity in me related to the big questions only physics can answer by making them more accessible and relevant, and convinced me that our flat universe with its total gravitational energy of zero can indeed come from almost nothing. (The last one was probably the easiest since I’m in no position to dispute.) I say “almost” because I can see how Krauss’s version of nothing is not going to satisfy those who ask the age-old metaphysical question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” As for me, I find the question too, well, metaphysical to be taken seriously.

If you’re curious but not enough to read the book, you can watch Krauss’s popular talk after which the book was written.

3 Comments

3 Comments
  1. The inverted stroke modulation in the zero glyph is found in several typefaces. You may see a similar approach in Hermann Zapf’s “Euler” which was designed for AMS (American Mathematical Society). Although it is an upright cursive font still you may notice the unconventional stroke modulation that is found in zero. I came across this convention of inverting zero’s in Zapf’s beautiful book “Alphabet Stories”. There he explains how it is useful to alter the stroke modulation in zero to distinguish it from uppercase “O” for lining numerals and lowercase “o” for scientific numerals. Also I think it is a tribute to the Arabic script in which the current latin script’s figures derived from. Although zero did not originate from Arabs (It came all the way from India) but the rest 9 glyphs did indeed. The conventions of having stems thinner than the horizontal strokes comes from writing systems like Arabic and Hebrew. I’m not really sure if these scripts might have something to do with this inverted convention but as Thomas Milo said once “they all sprung from the same root…”

    • Wow, thanks for the detailed information Onur. I suspected that it was originally done to distinguish it from uppercase “O” as you wrote, but couldn’t find any sources online. I’m adding Zapf’s book to my to-read list.

  2. Neslihan

    The last small paragraph defined me. “If you’re curious but not enough to read the book…”

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