Computing Thoughts

Bruce Eckel's Programming Blog

Jul 30, 2020 - 4 minute read

We Haven't Invented Zero Yet

I am the author, with Svetlana Isakova, of Atomic Kotlin.

I suspect most people currently alive were introduced to the concept of zero quite early in their development—early enough that they internalized it as a foundational principle and don’t ask questions about it. In addition, many people probably know that zero was invented after the original number systems.

The ancient Greeks didn’t have a zero, and it puzzled them: “How can nothing be something?”

If you start thinking about it, zero is pretty weird. Nonzero numbers are busy telling you how many of something there is, while zero is telling you that a thing doesn’t exist. It has a different job. And it behaves differently than all the other numbers when you use it in calculations. It is the singularity of numbers. Still, it behaves enough like the other numbers to be useful and it solves important problems like “what is the value of a - a”?

This brings us to the problem of null, which is definitely not zero. null is “Nothing of any kind.” null is the question that must never be asked. And in some languages like C and C++, null means staring into the face of the chaotic void that underlies reality—if you dereference a null pointer, that reality dissolves into nothingness.

If my program asks, “How many chickens are there here?”, it can count them. But if there are no chickens, I don’t get told there are zero chickens, I find out instead that there is nothing of any kind, which is not what I asked.

This becomes especially problematic when designing generic containers. If we create (in Kotlin) a Yard that can contain a chicken or a goat or an old car, we must deal with the problem of an empty Yard. One way to sidestep this is to force the user to provide an initial value in the constructor:

class Yard<T>(private var resident: T){
  fun add(item: T) { resident = item }
  fun get() = resident

class Chicken

fun main() {
  val chickenYard = Yard(Chicken())

But if I want to represent an empty Yard, I’m suddenly plunged into null-world:

class Yard<T> {
  private var resident: T? = null
  fun add(item: T) { resident = item }
  fun get(): T? = resident

class Chicken {
  fun layEgg() {}

fun main() {
  val chickenYard = Yard<Chicken>()
  val chicken: Chicken? = chickenYard.get()

If there is no chicken in the yard, I must not ask it to lay an egg or everything collapses. Fortunately, Kotlin provides extra safety syntax for this but I still have to dance around the issue.

When you add zero to a number system, that zero pervades throughout everything you can do with that number system. So now instead of saying there are one, two, or many chickens vs. nothing of any kind, we can say that there are zero chickens, zero goats, or zero old cars. Zero has a type.

null has no type. You can’t have null chickens, you just have null. Computer science hasn’t invented the equivalent of zero yet.

What would this “zero object” look like? If I create a Yard<Chicken> and there is no Chicken in that Yard, instead of null I need a “zero Chicken“—something with the shape of a Chicken, that I can perform Chicken operations upon without asking (at least, in most cases) whether it is a zero Chicken or not.

And just like zero in a number system allows you to say that there can be zero of a thing, the concept of a zero object must pervade the entire system (it must be built into the language). So if I ask a zero Chicken to layEgg(), it will hand me a zero Egg. Every time you create a new type, its zero-analogue must be created by the language.

Computer programming needs to invent its own zero to free us from the tyranny of null.

Comment on Reddit


  • A number of commenters pointed out that what I describe is similar to the null object pattern. This is true but what I’m actually asking for is an automatic null object pattern. Remember that design patterns represent language failures.

  • Here is a nice comparison of Java’s Optional and Kotlin’s built-in alternative to Optional, showing the advantages of the Kotlin approach.

  • Roman Elizarov discusses some aspects of this issue here and here.

  • This post muses over numerous approaches for mitigating null in C#, and a number of these approaches were incorporated into Kotlin. Note that C#’s default captures a little of what I’m talking about here.