Origin of zero and its importance
The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero by Robert M. KaplanA symbol for what is not there, an emptiness that increases any number its added to, an inexhaustible and indispensable paradox. As we enter the year 2000, zero is once again making its presence felt. Nothing itself, it makes possible a myriad of calculations. Indeed, without zero mathematics as we know it would not exist. And without mathematics our understanding of the universe would be vastly impoverished. But where did this nothing, this hollow circle, come from? Who created it? And what, exactly, does it mean?
Robert Kaplans The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero begins as a mystery story, taking us back to Sumerian times, and then to Greece and India, piecing together the way the idea of a symbol for nothing evolved. Kaplan shows us just how handicapped our ancestors were in trying to figure large sums without the aid of the zero. (Try multiplying CLXIV by XXIV). Remarkably, even the Greeks, mathematically brilliant as they were, didnt have a zero--or did they? We follow the trail to the East where, a millennium or two ago, Indian mathematicians took another crucial step. By treating zero for the first time like any other number, instead of a unique symbol, they allowed huge new leaps forward in computation, and also in our understanding of how mathematics itself works.
In the Middle Ages, this mathematical knowledge swept across western Europe via Arab traders. At first it was called dangerous Saracen magic and considered the Devils work, but it wasnt long before merchants and bankers saw how handy this magic was, and used it to develop tools like double-entry bookkeeping. Zero quickly became an essential part of increasingly sophisticated equations, and with the invention of calculus, one could say it was a linchpin of the scientific revolution. And now even deeper layers of this thing that is nothing are coming to light: our computers speak only in zeros and ones, and modern mathematics shows that zero alone can be made to generate everything.
Robert Kaplan serves up all this history with immense zest and humor; his writing is full of anecdotes and asides, and quotations from Shakespeare to Wallace Stevens extend the books context far beyond the scope of scientific specialists. For Kaplan, the history of zero is a lens for looking not only into the evolution of mathematics but into very nature of human thought. He points out how the history of mathematics is a process of recursive abstraction: how once a symbol is created to represent an idea, that symbol itself gives rise to new operations that in turn lead to new ideas. The beauty of mathematics is that even though we invent it, we seem to be discovering something that already exists.
The joy of that discovery shines from Kaplans pages, as he ranges from Archimedes to Einstein, making fascinating connections between mathematical insights from every age and culture. A tour de force of science history, The Nothing That Is takes us through the hollow circle that leads to infinity.
A history of Zero
The number zero as we know it arrived in the West circa , most famously delivered by Italian mathematician Fibonacci aka Leonardo of Pisa , who brought it, along with the rest of the Arabic numerals, back from his travels to north Africa. But the history of zero, both as a concept and a number, stretches far deeper into history—so deep, in fact, that its provenance is difficult to nail down. Initially, zero functioned as a mere placeholder—a way to tell 1 from 10 from , to give an example using Arabic numerals. It began to take shape as a number, rather than a punctuation mark between numbers, in India in the fifth century A. Some cultures were slow to accept the idea of zero, which for many carried darkly magical connotations.
The first evidence we have of zero is from the Sumerian culture in Mesopotamia, some 5, years ago. There, a slanted double wedge was inserted between cuneiform symbols for numbers, written positionally, to indicate the absence of a number in a place as we would write , the '0' indicating no digit in the tens column. The first recorded zero appeared in Mesopotamia around 3 B. The Mayans invented it independently circa 4 A. It was later devised in India in the mid-fifth century, spread to Cambodia near the end of the seventh century, and into China and the Islamic countries at the end of the eighth. Zero reached western Europe in the 12th century.
Deep in the jungle, an intrepid scholar locates a symbol of power and mystery
Thousands of chunks and slabs of stone covered the dirt floor: smashed heads of statues of Khmer kings and Hindu gods, broken lintels and door frames from abandoned temples, the remains of steles with ancient writing. It was a lifelong love that led me to this threshold., It might seem like an obvious piece of any numerical system, but the zero is a surprisingly recent development in human history. Sumerian scribes used spaces to denote absences in number columns as early as 4, years ago, but the first recorded use of a zero-like symbol dates to sometime around the third century B.
Though people have always understood the concept of nothing or having nothing, the concept of zero is relatively new; it fully developed in India around the fifth century A. Before then, mathematicians struggled to perform the simplest arithmetic calculations. Today, zero — both as a symbol or numeral and a concept meaning the absence of any quantity — allows us to perform calculus, do complicated equations, and to have invented computers. The foundation, based in the Netherlands, researches the origins of the zero digit. Zero as a placeholder was invented independently in civilizations around the world, said Dr. Annette van der Hoek, Indiologist and research coordinator at the Zero Project.
From placeholder to the driver of calculus, zero has crossed the greatest minds and most diverse borders since it was born many centuries ago. Today, zero is perhaps the most pervasive global symbol known. In the story of zero, something can be made out of nothing. Zero, zip, zilch - how often has a question been answered by one of these words? Countless, no doubt. Yet behind this seemingly simple answer conveying nothing lays the story of an idea that took many centuries to develop, many countries to cross, and many minds to comprehend.
The number 0 fulfills a central role in mathematics as the additive identity of the integers , real numbers , and many other algebraic structures. As a digit, 0 is used as a placeholder in place value systems. Informal or slang terms for zero include zilch and zip. The Italian mathematician Fibonacci c. This became zefiro in Italian, and was then contracted to zero in Venetian. There are different words used for the number or concept of zero depending on the context. For the simple notion of lacking, the words nothing and none are often used.