Discovery of earliest zero equals big news
In the world of mathematics, a discovery has been made revealing nothing of interest.
Carbon dating of a manuscript housed in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library has revealed that it contains the earliest known reference to the number zero.
It had been thought that the first zero had been carved on a wall in a temple in Gwalior, India, in 876.
However, the Bakhshali manuscript, named after the village where it was found buried in a field in what is now Peshawar, northwest Pakistan, has been dated to the third or fourth century.
The document was unearthed by a farmer in 1881 and acquired by AFR Hoernle, an Indologist, who presented it to the library in 1902.
For decades, it was thought to have been written between the eighth and 12th centuries.
The new research was undertaken after inquiries by Marcus Du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at Oxford.
“Zero is such an important number in our modern age and people take it for granted, but it has a history and I was really fascinated to know where our zero came from,” he said.
The Greeks and Romans had no symbol for zero, but India had “a culture that is quite happy to conceive of the void, to conceive of the infinite”, Du Sautoy explained.
“Carbon dating is difficult because you have to burn a little bit of the manuscript, so the Bodleian were very nervous about doing that.
“But they understood the significance and they were very much on board.”
He told BBC Radio 4’ s Today programme: “Nobody knew quite the date this manuscript was from.
“Looking at the style of writing, it was thought to be maybe eighth to 12th century. Everyone was deeply shocked by how old this is. There was so much mathematics going on in this region, bubbling away already in the third and fourth century.”
In the manuscript, thought to have been a training manual for merchants, the symbol for zero appears as a dot.
Du Sautoy said: “Zero is one of the most important numbers, but it had to be invented. It’s a very abstract idea: why do you need a number to count nothing? This was quite a shock for Europeans.
“European mathematics was very practical. It was about counting things. But the use of zero democratised mathematics — it allowed people to write down mathematics and to keep track of things. The authorities were using the abacus and could trick people because no record was being kept.
“It means that the common person can keep track of calculations.”
The manuscript will go on show at the Science Museum in London on October 4 for its exhibition Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation, before returning to the Bodleian.
Bodleain librarian Richard Ovenden said: “Determining the date of the Bakhshali manuscript is of vital importance to the history of mathematics and the study of early South Asian culture, and these surprising research results testify to the subcontinent’s rich and long- standing scientific tradition.”