Dis­cov­ery of ear­li­est zero equals big news

Weekend Herald - - WORLD - Jamie Phillips Singh

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.”

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