Walking down the stairs from the top floor of Brink Hall, the signs in the stairwell read “3,” then “2,” then “1,” and then “M,” then “G,” and finally “B.” What?
Why are half the floors letters and the other half numbers? Is the exit on the first floor or the ground floor? What is “M?”
I’ve gone to my math professor’s office hours in Brink Hall six or seven times this semester. Four times, I’ve had to ask for directions to his office. Once, I accidentally went back outside. And every single time, I’ve wandered through the building for five minutes before finding the right exit.
Brink will always be a maze, and I will always get lost in it, but there is a simple solution to the problem.
If the first floor was called “1,” the ground floor — the zeroeth floor — was called “0,” the basement was called “-1,” and so on, it would always be crystal clear how far one is from the main entrance.
This system is in place in much of the world, but it hasn’t quite caught on in the United States because of a fear of any counting that begins with the number zero.
There are two different ways to count things: cardinally and ordinally. Cardinal counting — one, two, three, four — determines how many things are in a set. It’s how people figure out how many milk jugs are in their shopping cart. Ordinal counting — first, second, third — determines what order things go in. It’s how people keep track of halves and quarters in football games.
Ordinal counting consistently makes more sense when one includes a zeroeth element.
It bothers me that 2016 is in the 21st century and not the 20th one. If the calendar included 0 CE instead of jumping straight from 1 BCE to 1 CE, we would have zeroeth century, 2016 would be in the 20th century and the world would make a little more sense.
It bothers me that our clocks run from 1:00 to 12:00 instead of 00:00 to 11:00. If we introduced zero o’clock, each day would begin at a reasonable 00:00 instead of the clumsy 12:00 midnight.
But nothing bothers me more than the confusion in stairwells. No other situation begs quite as desperately for counting to begin at zero and to include negative numbers. Buildings are essentially vertical number lines.
However, unfamiliarity with the idea of counting from zero and discomfort with the word “zeroeth” means that zero masquerades behind letters like “G” for ground floor, or maybe “L” for lobby.
Uneasiness with the idea of negative numbers means that negative floors hide behind names like “basement” and “lower lobby.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. Changing signs and buttons on elevators is pretty cheap, but meaningful change demands the difficult work of opening minds to the intuitive magic of counting from zero.
Email your congressperson, city council member or ASUI representative. Fight for saner stairwells.
Danny Bugingo can be reached at email@example.com