Zero: an invention that changed the world

Zero the hero: The number’s round shape represents the circle of life. © Oxford University

Has the number “zero” done more to advance humanity than any other idea? Many mathematicians think so – for, without zero, we could not consider the ideas of nothingness or infinity.

According to scientist David Chivall, the number zero is a bit like The Beatles.

Today, we take both for granted. But for those who were alive in the 1960s, the four boys from Liverpool changed everything. “I imagine it’s very similar to zero,” he mused. Hundreds of years ago, when people first realised that the lack of something could be counted like a number, it must have been revolutionary.

Not long ago, he and his colleagues at Oxford University discovered that the revolution began far earlier than they thought.

The university owns the Bakhshali manuscript, which is like an ancient Indian maths textbook full of problems to help teach merchants arithmetic. It also contains the earliest example of a circular figure, zero, which eventually became the symbol used today.

When Chivall and his colleagues carbon dated it, they discovered that it was from the 3rd or 4th Century – around 500 years older than expected.

The symbol was only used as a placeholder in larger numbers (like the zero in 101). But it gave zero its shape, and India eventually became the first to treat zero as a number in its own right.

This was a huge breakthrough. The number zero helped merchants to trade better. It led to algebra and calculus, which are central to engineering and medicine. It was also key to inventing computing.

Some have even called it “one of the greatest innovations in human history”. Could it be the greatest of all?

Much ado about nothing

No, say some. Only one thing holds that title: the ability to control fire. This helped people to cook food, stay warm, and fight off danger. Humanity survived for millennia without the number zero, but we could not have done without heat.

“But zero made things interesting,” say mathematicians. It made trade, medicine, and technology possible. Without zero, we would be stuck in ancient ways, with short lifespans and few opportunities. We should celebrate it more often.

You Decide

  1. Which would you rather live without fire, or the number zero?

Activities

  1. There are three classes with 27 students. Every day, nine students read an article in The Day. How many days will it be until zero students have NOT read an article?

Some People Say...

“In nothingness, there is everything.”

Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986), Indian philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Zero has two basic uses: as a placeholder (as in 101) and as a number in its own right (between one and minus one). The manuscript does not do the second, but it is the earliest example of a round zero symbol.
What do we not know?
Who invented the idea of zero as a number. The earliest example is in a text by the mathematician Brahmagupta in AD628, but he did not claim to invent it.

Word Watch

Mused
To reflect on; consider.
Lack
Not having something; a shortage.
Revolutionary
Something that causes a complete dramatic change.
Bakhshali manuscript
Discovered in 1881, buried in the village of Bakhshali. The village was then part of India. The manuscript is written in Sanskrit.
Merchants
People who buy and sell things.
Colleagues
People you work with.
Carbon dated
A way of finding out how old something is if it is made from natural materials containing carbon.
Algebra
A branch of mathematics in which numbers are replaced by letters to create formulae and equations.
Calculus
A branch of mathematics which studies how something changes over time.
Millennia
A thousand years.
Computing
Computers use a binary code (the numbers 1 and 0) to represent data, sound, and images.

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