The Drawing Board: Dividing By Zero

If there’s one experience universal to American boyhood, it’s the untraversable chasm between sports and math. Yeah, that is a word. Math and sports have never really seen eye-to-eye, in part because of confusing mixed messages from the disciplines. For example, your coach says, “Give 110% out there,” and your math teacher says “Basketball practice is not an excuse for not doing your homework.” Or your coach says “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” and your math teacher says “Raise your hand if you want to ask a question.” What the hell? If you were anything like me in school, you were a sports guy. So it probably came as a pretty big shock when a 30-something pointdexter who used to go to college tells you that you can’t divide by zero. Yeah, maybe you can’t, nerd, but I know that right now, this is anyone’s game.

Want to see me divide 5 by 0? Talk to any math teacher and he’ll tell you it’s impossible because you can’t take 5 of something and divide it into zero equal groups. Oh really? Check this out: 5 divided by zero is 5. Why? Because I divided it into zero groups, meaning it’s still all there. If you want to get all technical about it, I didn’t really divide at all, so bam—still 5. Does that mean that I can’t divide it? No, it just means that I obviously wouldn’t divide it because it’s already done. That’s like saying you can’t give a bald guy a haircut–although that is true–but it still applies because they’re both unsportsmanlike attitudes. Think of it as a word problem. Divide 5 into zero parts might as well read Don’t divide 5 into any parts. Naturally, then, the answer is five. Now you try telling your sixth grade math teacher Ms. Covington that, and she’ll tell you the same thing she told me: “Raise your hand if you want to ask a question.” Sigh. So you raise your hand, and she calls on you, and then you give her this look like Are you serious? Do I really have to repeat the question? And she just gives you that smug look, so you decide it’s all-out war. “I can divide five by zero, it’s five.” And she goes “No, five divided by one is five.” And you say, “So what? 2 plus 2 is four, that doesn’t mean 3 plus 1 can’t be.” Now she’s a little irritated because you caught her in a lie.

And that’s why the Ms. Covingtons of the world are stuck teaching math to a bunch of androgynous 12-year-olds, and people like me are out there kicking ass and taking names. Ms. Covington doesn’t survive in the real world, because when someone important asks her to do something simple like divide by zero, she whines and says “I can’t.” Ha! I’d like to see her say “I can’t” to Coach Leonard when he tells her to do the rope climb. But you and me, we know better. When my boss says, “Hey Jake, quick, what’s 1.2 million divided by zero?” I say, “Done. It’s 1.2 million.” And you know what, I get promoted. Hell, I’ve been promoted three times, and I don’t even work there! You know how many promotions that comes to per year? You’re damn right it’s three.

Now I’m not just some dumb jock. I realize you can’t always will something to be done. If you’re losing in basketball to Tulane by 29 points at halftime, well you ain’t coming back. But why we’ve somehow decided that you can’t divide by zero, which is like the easiest number to deal with because it’s literally nothing, is beyond me. I say how can you divide one number by a larger number? What’s 6 divided by 7? Common sense tells us it’s 6 with a remainder of zero. Yeah, sometimes you can do it if you’re dividing up sticks or water or something, but you ever try putting 6 diamonds in 7 groups? Good luck. Or how about dividing 6 guys into 7 teams? Not gonna happen.

Now I’m being a little coy here. There is, of course, a difference between applied math and theoretical math. In applied math, as discussed, 5/0 is five. But in theoretical math, 5/0 is zero. So there is that difference. Still don’t get it? Okay, I’ll explain. In applied math, you can’t keep diving all day—sorry, I meant dividing, but diving isn’t really an all-day activity either—because you’ll just get bored and go do something else, like diving. But in theoretical math we can pretend to keep dividing it. Shoot, in theoretical math we can pretend to keep doing just about anything. For example:

Σ (1/2n) = ½ + ¼+….

This series is obviously convergent, with the sum of the series approaching 1 as n approaches infinity. Learn your Zeno, bitches. By this same logic, if our divisive iterations (n) continue to infinity, the resulting number of groups into which we have divided reaches a finite limit of zero, why? Because there’s nothing left to divide. You destroyed it all, nice going. And when there’s nothing there, you can’t determine how many groups there are, that’s just a rule of math: You can’t divide zero by something other than zero.

So there it is, in both the real world and up on the chalkboard for all you eggheads. Still confused? Come back next week for part 2. Just kidding, this column is divided into zero parts, so it’s all here.

Did you think this week’s Drawing Board was especially bad? Well, that’s what happens when you don’t submit questions. Send them to, or brace yourself for next week.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Tim on January 7, 2011 at 9:23 PM

    Really? You consider this “Sports”?


  2. Posted by Wey on January 8, 2011 at 12:23 AM

    Tulane sucks


  3. Posted by Wey on January 8, 2011 at 12:28 AM

    ps., I only read these in full if an “ask jake” is included…that’s when you really get your money’s worth; I expect all of them to be retroactively corrected? (see what I did there? Half of your work is already done on one of them, possibly two if you’re really desperate…)


  4. It’s as much “Sports” as it is “Education” (or “Comedy” for that matter)…so to answer your question, no.


  5. Posted by Wey on January 10, 2011 at 2:01 AM

    fair enough; I was just trying to add insight to injury (sorry Tulane)…

    oh, that was your way of answering Tim’s question…fair enough


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