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# Z is for Zero

Here’s the last letter of the A to Z blogging challenge for 2015. I started with an airplane and wound up with a word that is a symbol of no quantity and is also an important airplane that flew during World War II.

Sumerians were the first people to develop a counting system. They used spaces to show the absence of a number as early as four thousand years ago. The first recorded use of a zero like symbol dates back to around the third century B.C. in ancient Babylon.

The spaces made it kind of hard to really know what the number was supposed to be. The zero became the placeholder to replace those spaces. It would become the way to tell the number 10 from the number 100.

Then zero became a concept meaning the absence of any quantity. Zero is a numerical digit that plays a central role in mathematics. It functions as a place holder between the negative and positive numbers on a number line and allows us to perform complicated calculus equations. It’s also an essential part of the binary  code for computers.

Not only does zero play a key role in mathematics, it is also a nickname for an aircraft that was used in World War II. It was a long-range fighter operated by the Japanese Navy from 1940-1945. Named the zero fighter because it entered service for the Imperial Navy in the Imperial year 2600 (1940) and they named it after the last digit of that year. Dr. Jiro Horikoshi was the chief designer of this and many other Japanese fighters.

It was considered one of the most capable carrier based fighters in the world. As a dog fighter in battle, it achieved a legendary kill ratio of 12:1. The Japanese Naval pilots were seen as the best and most experienced naval aviators in the world in late 1941, at the time when Pearl Harbor took place.

There were some inherent flaws in the design of the Zero, but some of those weaknesses were overcome by the ability of the pilots flying them. The aircraft was made very lightweight, because the Japanese industry could only build 800 horsepower engines. It made the plane very maneuverable and easy to fly. It was made for low altitude flying, but above 15000 feet, the controls were less responsive. Because it was so lightweight, it couldn’t carry very heavy ammunition nor could it take very many enemy hits. It also saw having armor plating, parachutes, and self sealing gas tanks as being non-essential extra weight, so the airplane wasn’t equipped with them.

I realize this is a Japanese aircraft and that they were on the other side in the war, but it is very interesting how and why they were made so lightweight and maneuverable. That along with the abilities of the pilots who flew them made these airplanes a worthy opponent of the Allied forces.

So, the zero played both an important role in mathematics and in World War II. The fact that the word zero was the name for a placeholder and what an airplane was nicknamed shows what a contrast a double meaning of one word can have.

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