The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal - August 30th, 2005

August 30th, 2005

August 30th, 2005
11:08 am

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My Doomed Hero, Zero

Hippasus stood on the deck of the ship as it rocked in the turbulent sea, surrounded by men who used to be his brothers. His captors gazed out at the sea and talked about everything except for the man they had chained to the railing, afraid to acknowledge Hippasus's presence.

They were all thin men, none of them soldiers, and yet eight of them had wrestled him out of his bed in the middle of the night to drag him to the boat. They shuffled nervously from foot to foot; they could plot the stars in the heavens but they had never executed a man. Their grand theories could hold up an atrium, but they offered no advice on how to murder a revolutionary.

Though Hippasus had spent hours drawing figures on the walls with each of them, discussing the glory of mathematics, now they pretended he didn't exist. They had gagged him, because if he had been able to talk he might taint them all with his insanity, and who knew where things would go then?

The irony was, he thought, that if he hadn't been one of their greatest mathematicians this would have never happened. He saw the flaw in their logic, and it was so blatant that they had to kill him to hide it. If one so learned as Hippasus could refute the glory of the spheres, then who else might turn away from the pure ratios? They had to throw him into the cold sea to drown him, and then his wild and unsettling theories would be gone forever.

Their weakness sickened him.

Pythagoras walked out onto the deck and yanked the leather strap out from between Hippasus' teeth. "Do you recant?"

"I do not," Hippasus said. "There is no whole ratio between the diagonal of a square and its sides. You will find no ruler that can measure both the side and the diagonal perfectly. It is irrational."

"There are ratios in everything," Pythagoras replied calmly.

"Not a whole ratio. Whatever measurement you use to measure side A, the measurement of the diagonal will end in a fraction, not a whole number."

"You lie."

"No, you do." Hippasus raised his voice and shouted so everyone on the ship would hear him, hoping desperately that perhaps they'd see how mad they all were, to kill for this. "You pretend the stick doesn't jut out a bit, hoping that we'll all ignore the way that the corner never lies precisely on the measuring mark! You don't want to acknowledge this because that's proof that all of nature is not according to the golden mean! There's something out there that you haven't discovered yet, Pythagoras, and you're afraid to face it!"

Hippasus could see the fear at the back of Pythagoras' eyes – but it was overlaid with anger. Pythagoras had been so brilliant that he'd discovered hundreds of mathematical ratios, so bold and so accurate that he'd accumulated an army of scholars to follow him, blazing a trail of numbers and angles that stunned the world….

…But at some point, he'd integrated the ideas into his psyche so his ideas and his being were one and the same. His theories were a part of his flesh; proving his theory wrong was an assault upon his being that was worse than physical, since unlike a shattered leg a broken theory would never heal. The irrational was a concept that struck at Pythagoras' heart, and he would defend them with his life.

"Throw him overboard," Pythagoras said.

They did. Hippasus bobbed for a bit, kicking and thrashing against the weight of the iron that dragged him down, screaming that he was right, he was right, he was right.

He went under once, twice, and then disappeared. The members of the Pythagorean brotherhood leaned over the railing, searching for Hippasus as the finality of what they had done settled over them in a disquieting silence.

"The ratios are correct," Pythagoras muttered uneasily. "He saw the stick wrong."

The members of his brotherhood agreed with him, patting him on the back to tell him that he had done the only correct thing, and then they steered the boat back home to get back on with their lives.


The legend may or may not be true. This is merely the most popular version of Hippasus' fate; others foretell that Hippasus was merely banished from his homeland, exiled for his refusal to deny the irrational. Others tell of the scored Hippasus meeting a horrible fate at sea, which everyone agreed was the will of the Gods. But whatever happened, the Pythagoreans clearly rejected Hippasus' theory.

But Hippasus spoke the truth. Everything he said was easily verifiable by, well, picking up a yardstick. The problem was that the Greeks didn't want to acknowledge the concept that the world was not based on the perfect beauty of pure ratios involving whole numbers. Some of the world is based on ugly things like square roots, which is how you find the true length of a square's diagonal. Eventually, the Greeks reluctantly admitted the existence of irrational numbers.

The reason I find this fascinating is because it speaks of an essential human behavior: no matter how obvious a truth may be, someone has died for stating it.

People hate the truth, particularly when it conflicts with their world view. They know how things are, and even if it's a terrible inconvenience they don't want to be shaken up. It doesn't matter how fundamental a truth may be, or even how easily provable it is; if people don't want to see it, they won't, and eventually they'll kill people who keep annoying them.

Sadly, the converse is also true; no matter how obvious a lie may be, someone has died for it. And on the whole, probably more people have died for lies than for truths.

(Inspired by reading Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea. I'm no mathematician, so if I've oversimplified here please forgive me.)

(64 shouts of denial | Tell me I'm full of it)

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