SPOTLIGHT ON ZERO
Carbon dating pushes its vintage by 500 years
Till now the origins of the ubiquitous zero were shrouded in mystery. However, carbon dating of a batch of 70 leaves of birch bark, featuring mathematics and text in Sanskrit, reveals that the numeric is 500 years older than it was thought to be. The Bakshali manuscript, which contains the numbers, is believed to belong to an era between 224 AD and 383 AD. The earlier assumption, which was drawn from an inscription on the wall of a Gwalior temple, had called it a 9th century invention. This new discovery also throws light on the evolution of zero. On the Bakshali manuscript, which could be a teaching manual for Buddhist monks, the symbol is represented by a dot. Much later it became the symbol with a hole, as we know it. Ancient Indians, like their Mayan and Babylonian counterparts, used the zero as a placeholder. Gradually, it was elevated to the status of a number. It is interesting to note that this manuscript — discovered by a farmer in 1881 in Bakshali, now in Pakistan — had travelled to England, and has been housed by the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library since 1902. The zero is considered the greatest breakthrough in mathematics. It was first described in 628 AD by the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta. It has been the basis for a new branch of mathematics called the calculus. The zero, considered both a symbol and a numeric, signifies ‘something’ and ‘nothing’. Curiously, in its initial stage, it was banned as heresy.