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# Let us meet the Number Zer0 – The Secrets of the Number that Changed the World

One of the most significant occasions in the history of mathematics is commemorated by a tiny dot on an old piece of birch bark. The bark is a piece of the Bakhshali manuscript, an ancient Indian mathematical writing. The first time the number zero was used in writing was the dot.

Nowadays, it is difficult to envision mathematics without zero. The placement of a digit is very significant in positional number systems, like the decimal system we currently use.

Additionally, putting a 0 at the end of a number makes operations with multiples of 10 simple, just as it does when adding numbers like 9 and 1. When zero was created, calculations became incredibly simple, freeing mathematicians to create important mathematical fields like algebra and calculus and eventually the foundation for computers.

# TRACING THE HISTORY OF ZERO

THE BABYLONIANS

Although they did not use a 0, the Sumerians of 5,000 BC used a positional system. To distinguish between, for instance, 204 and 20000004, a primitive form of a symbol or a space was used. The distinction between 5 and 500, however, had to be made by reference to context because that symbol was never used at the end of a number.

The absence of zero symbols made it difficult for Babylonian scribes to record numbers that had no value in a particular location. To begin with they left a gap between numerals, which would be like writing two hundred and four as 2 4. However, not everyone followed this convention, and when copies were made the gaps were often left out. Even when this system was followed, it was difficult to tell a number like 204 from 2004, as they would both be written as 2 4.

The first zero was created when an unidentified scribe started using a symbol to represent a location without a value sometime in the third century BC. With a symbol for the zero, numbers like our 204 and 2004 were no longer confusing.

Although they can lay claim to being the first to use the zero, the Babylonians did not comprehend it in the way we do today. Their zero served as a placeholder and did not represent a number. Zero was still not entirely clear to me.

The Babylonians also opposed using zeros to end numbers. That would be equivalent to writing 3,000 as 3 in our system. They are difficult to distinguish from one another because you would also write 30 as 3 and 3 as 3. The value of such numbers was determined by context for Babylonian readers. In a limited way, we also engage in this. If someone says an orange costs 15 cents, we assume they mean 15 cents, but if they say a new book costs 15 cents, we assume they mean 15 cents, or \$15. Because they were unable to rely on context, Babylonian astronomers used the zero as we do at the end of numbers to more precisely record arc minutes and degrees. But the rest of society rejected their innovation.

The Babylonian zero was discovered by the Greeks as part of the spoils of Alexander the Great’s conquests (356-323 BC). Since their number system did not use place values, the majority of Greeks were unable to use them. Additionally, the idea of zero presented some troubling philosophical issues and ran counter to Aristotle’s principles (384-322 BC). Only Greek astronomers, like the Babylonians before them, used the zero because the advantages it provided them outweighed the drawbacks.

## IN SOUTH AMERICA

Half a world away and seven centuries after the Babylonians made their discovery, another place value numbering system-using culture also created its own zero. The Maya people of South America created a sophisticated and intricate system of timekeeping. They used a variety of calendars for a variety of reasons; including their religious fear that time might end one day if the calendars ran out.

The Maya had a place-value system with 20 as the base, but the second place only went up to 18. Around the fourth century, they developed the zero. They had a variety of symbols for the zero, ranging from a bowl-like object to a complex face. However, unlike the Babylonians, the Maya did not use the zero in any wider sense. It remained just a placeholder, and their complex number system limited their ability to represent large numbers.

## ZERO DISCOVERED BY INDIA

In India, zero started to exist as an actual number around 1,500 years ago (or even earlier), denoting nothing.

Brahmagupta, an Indian mathematician, developed the modern concept of zero in the seventh century. He penned the earliest description of zero-based arithmetic:

A number remains unchanged when zero is added to it or subtracted from it, and it becomes zero when another number multiplies zero.

Arab traders eventually brought the zero they discovered in India to the West and the Middle East. The symbol we now use was finally accepted after many years and a lot of opposition, and zero acquired more significance than just a positional indicator. It has been important to mathematics ever since.

## SHUNYA – NOTHINGNESS

There are similarities between the philosophical idea of nothingness and the mathematical zero, but they are not the same thing. The concept of nothingness plays a significant role in early Indian thought (shunya), and there is speculation about the idea of complete nonexistence before the creation of the world in all astronomical writings.

However, a human mind cannot imagine such a complete void. If you can see stars even in a vacuum of space, you are being radiated by their electromagnetic energy.

It is possible that in the period before the Big Bang, a true zero, which is absolute nothingness, existed. However, we will never know. We are unable to even imagine it.

Also published on Medium.

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