Something from Nothing

by Gil McRae, FWRI Director

Most will recall the concern associated with the turn of the millennium on December 31, 1999. Many hundreds of hours were spent readying computer systems for that dreaded fractional second when 1999 would turn to 2000.  Prior to about 1997 we had happily been inputting years as only two numbers, oblivious to the fact that someone might interpret “95” as something other than 1995. As it turned out, that seemed to be the biggest adjustment required (not a small one I imagine) – changing your IT systems to delineate the year with four digits rather than two.

As it turned out, we were ahead of the game. According to our calendar (aka the Gregorian calendar) December 31, 1999 was not the end of a millennium at all.  The Gregorian calendar jumps from 1 BC (or BCE) to 1 AD (or CE) with no “zero” year in between.  The millennium actually ended a year later, on December 31, 2000. Why no zero year you ask?  The Gregorian calendar, while introduced in 1582, was based on a Roman calendar developed by Dionysius in the 6th century CE.  Ancient Romans (as well as ancient Greeks and Egyptians) simply did not have a symbol for “zero” in their numbering system, which explains the calendar jump.

At the risk of oversimplifying, these ancient cultures had fundamental philosophical difficulty with the concept of “nothingness” and got along just fine building pyramids and temples and conquering civilizations without worrying about it. Turns out they were generally not too comfortable with the concept of infinity either. Although the Mayans had developed a concept of (and symbol for) zero as early as 36 BCE, this fact was lost until relatively recently.  The numbering system we use today is based on an Indian system promoted and popularized via Arab influence that was not widely adopted in Europe till the sixteenth century CE.

Ok, so that’s at least moderately interesting, but what does that have to do with us? As FWC scientists, we spend an inordinate amount of time meticulously documenting nothingness.  We are completely comfortable with this concept and realize how important it is to conducting good science.  We spend countless hours setting nets, electrofishing, hiking to remote GPS points, flying aerial surveys and conducting other activities knowing full well that a good portion of the work is going to result in some flavor of “nothingness”.  These null values are documented with the same care and precision that we use for all similar events based on the type of work we are conducting.  In many cases, it is the “nothingness” that puts everything else into context and allows us to draw important meaning from our work.

When discussing the nature of the work we do, I am sometimes asked by members of the public questions similar to: “Why don’t we save money by going to “hotspots” where we know a particular species will occur”.  I have also been asked why our saltwater recreational angler survey folks spend hours in the middle of the night at a boat ramp or dock when very little activity occurs.  Occasionally a fishing guide will ask why we are setting nets on mucky bottom not likely to hold much of anything worth catching.  The next time I think I will answer these questions simply:  we make something from nothing.