How do you represent “nothingness”, the absence or everything, the emptiness in any place and space, the connection between the negative and the positive? For our contemporary society the reply is “zero” (0), used in maths and in everything else. But have you ever wondered when and how we started to use it?
Western people believed that the zero as number and symbol, how we know and use it today, was invented in the 8th century – or at least brought to Europe – by the great Arab mathematician, al-Khwarizmi. But a recent discovery and research shows it might be much older, dated back to the 3rd and 4th century, supposedly invented – or at least used – in India.
This is the result of analysis conducted on the ancient Bakhsali manuscript, a mathematical document discovered more than 100 years ago in India. It was found in 1881 by a farmer near the village Bakhshali (or Bakhshalai) of the Yusufzai subdivision of the Peshawar district (now in Pakistan). Bought by German-British Orientalist Augustus Frederic Rudolf Hoernlé it was then taken to the Bodleian Libraries in 1902.
The Indian manuscript is made of birch-bark and only 70 leaves survived to the time. But it was enough to discover it contains hundreds of zeroes. Now, a new carbon dating research, commissioned by the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, into the ancient Indian Bakhshali manuscript, has revealed it is five centuries older than scholars previously believed.
Ancient Greeks were used to utilise the zero, but just as a concept. Romans used an abacus or a counting frame rather then their numerals for arithmetic. For the ancient Mayas and Babylonians instead, the zero was just a placeholder. This manuscript is the evidence that only in India this zero became a number like the one we use nowadays and it was long long time ago.
If you are curious, you can see the document by yourself because a folio from the manuscript will go on public display at the Science Museum In London during the major exhibition “Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation“, from 4th October 2017.
In the meantime, you can enjoy the video presentation from the University of Oxford.
How much do you know about history and maths? Do you think you could do what you do nowadays without the number zero?
Just to give an idea: you are reading this article thanks to the “0” number, and you should thank the “0” if you can also watch the TV, drive your car, use your smartphone and any other technological devices existing all around the world.