Going Negative, part 3

Let’s start with a joke:

A physicist, a biologist and a mathematician are sitting in a street café one morning watching an empty store on the other side of the street.They see someone unlock the store and go in.Time passes.Someone else goes in. More time passes. Then three people come out.

The physicist says, “Our measurements weren’t accurate.” The biologist says, “The two people who went in must have reproduced.” The mathematician says, “If one more person enters the store, it will be empty.”

Of course the joke here is that the mathematician is holding the absurd belief that there are a negative number of people in the store.1 The joke is built on our shared knowledge that although negative numbers make sense in some contexts, they aren’t sensible in the present context. But the knowledge that negative numbers do make sense in some contexts shouldn’t be taken for…

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