‘Nothing’ that became everything: The history of zero
Have you ever thought of a world without zero? How hard would life be without the symbol that represents nothing!
From simple mathematic calculations to the binary codes that run supercomputers, zero has played a crucial role in shaping human history. Without zero, the world we see today would have been unimaginable.
How did zero become so vital in our lives? Who invented the mighty zero? How was it invented? Let us explore the history of this humble digit—zero.
As humans evolved and civilisations flourished, they needed a system to count things – the number of chickens and cattle they own, the number of days, the number of fellow beings of their tribe, and many more. Initially, they used their fingers to count, but calculations above 10s and 20s became a little tricky. Tally marks, or hash marks, were one of the systems early humans invented and used widely to make counting easier. The tally mark system failed to tackle giant figures. The increase in the complexity of life demanded better and more efficient ways of counting.
Many of the earlier civilisations had their methods of counting. However, zero didn’t get developed naturally. The logical reason for this was that there was no need for a number to count ‘nothing’! Robert Kaplan, author of The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero and former professor of Mathematics at Harvard University, said: “Zero is in the mind, but not in the sensory world.”
Even today, we never count the emptiness of something as zero. If there is nothing, it is just nothing. The same was the case earlier. In those civilisations, the concept of zero had only the value of a placeholder, and it was never considered as an individual digit with its own unique value or properties.
According to Robert Kaplan, the first recorded use of zero dates back to some 5,000 years ago in the ancient Sumerian culture of Mesopotamia.
The Romans had a completely different numeral system, but the Roman numerals were quite complicated. The Romans struggled while performing basic mathematical operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. There was no concept of zero in their system.
According to Robert Kaplan, the first recorded use of zero dates back to some 5,000 years ago in the ancient Sumerian culture of Mesopotamia. Sumerian scribes used spaces to denote the absence of a digit in a string of numbers. For example, 108 was written with an empty space in the tens column – thus differentiating 18 from 108, but the issue arose while representing zero in the ones column. As the spaces came after two consecutive numbers, it became a real trouble identifying them – which means 18, 180 and 1800 looked the same.
The Babylonians and the Mayans also used the concept of zero in their number systems. The Babylonians used a number system founded around values of 60, called a base 60, or sexagesimal number system. They developed a specific sign – two small wedges – to differentiate between magnitudes, in the same way we use zeros to distinguish between tenths, hundredths and thousandths.
The Mayans in Central America also independently developed the concept of zero sometime around 350 A.D., when they began using a zero marker in their calendars. From a bowl-like object to a complex face, they had several symbols to depict zero. Even in this case, zero was nothing more than a placeholder.
According to Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford and the lead researcher in Bakshali research, the first documented use of zero came from the ancient astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta.
The latest studies by the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library show that the roots of zero that we use today lay in India. Carbon dating conducted on an ancient Indian text known as the Bakshali manuscript revealed that the concept of zero was used in India around 1,500 years ago. Zero was represented in the form of a small dot called ‘shunya’, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘nothing’ or ‘empty’. A ninth-century inscription on a temple wall in Gwalior in India, was earlier considered as the first written document of zero, but the Bakshali manuscript pushed back the date furthermore to about 500 years.
Indians used the ten-number decimal system, including zero, which eventually developed into the modern-day base-10 system. Unlike the Mayans and the Babylonians, rather than considering zero as just a placeholder, the Indians described it as the absence of a quantity.
According to Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford and the lead researcher in Bakshali research, the first documented use of zero came from the ancient astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta. Marcus du Sautoy says: “Brahmagupta’s text Brahmasphutasiddhanta, written in 628 A.D., is the first text to talk of zero as a number in its own right and to include a discussion of the arithmetic of zero, including the dangerous act of dividing by zero.”
Peter Gobets, secretary of the ZerOrigIndia Foundation (a Netherlands-based foundation that researches the origins of the zero digit), observes that Indian philosophy and mythology might have influenced the creation of zero. The philosophy of emptiness, or ‘shunyata’, was dominant in both Buddhist and Hindu teachings.
From India, zero found its way eastwards to China and westwards to the Arabian countries through trade. Persian mathematician, Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khowarizmi, worked on equations that equalled zero and invented algebra and algorithms.
By the ninth century, zero entered the Arabic numeral system and developed into the oval shape, which later evolved into the modern numeral system that we use today. The Arabs called this circle ‘sifr’ (empty).
Zero had to wait till the 12th century to get into Europe. The Europeans’ denial of zero initially, had to do with the philosophical side – zero contradicted Aristotle’s rejection of a vacuum, so to accept zero meant disavowing the cornerstone of Greek philosophy itself.
Italian mathematician Fibonacci played a crucial role in campaigning zero to the mainstream in the European nations. By the 1600s, zero found its reach throughout Europe. Zero became the foundation of Rene Descartes’ Cartesian coordinate system and Sir Isaac Newton’s and Gottfried Leibniz’s invention of calculus. Calculus paved the way for physics, computers, engineering and much of financial and economic theory that we see today.
The invention of zero is one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of Mathematics. It democratised and brought Mathematics to its sophistication. Without this ubiquitous symbol for ‘nothing’, modern technology and the modern world, which we regard as trivial today, would have been just a Utopian concept.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
Can you think of how the number zero become vital in our lives?
Can you think of the role played by zero in sophisticating Mathematics?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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