SPOT­LIGHT ON ZERO

Car­bon dat­ing pushes its vin­tage by 500 years

DNA (Delhi) - - OPINION -

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.

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