Scientists trace concept of zero to Indian manuscript
Nowt, nada, zilch: there is nothing new about nothingness. But the moment that the absence of stuff became zero, a number in its own right, is regarded as one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematics.
Scientists have now traced the origins of this leap to an ancient Indian text, known as the Bakhshali manuscript – which has been housed in the UK since 1902.
Radiocarbon dating reveals that the fragmentary text, which is inscribed on 70 pieces of birch bark and contains hundreds of zeros, dates to as early as the 3rd or 4th century – about 500 years older than scholars previously believed. This makes it the world’s oldest recorded origin of the zero symbol that we use today.
Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, said: “Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and our whole digital world is based on nothing or something. But there was a moment when there wasn’t this number.”
The Bakhshali manuscript was found in 1881, buried in a field in a village called Bakhshali, near Peshawar, in what is now a region of Pakistan. It was later acquired by the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
Translations of the text suggest it was a form of training manual for merchants trading across the Silk route, and it includes practical arithmetic exercises and something approaching algebra.
In the fragile document, zero does not yet feature as a number in its own right, but as a placeholder in a number system, as the “0” in “101” indicates no tens. It features a problem to which the answer is zero, but here the answer is left blank.
Several ancient cultures independently came up with similar placeholder symbols. The Babylonians used a double wedge for nothing as part of cuneiform symbols dating back 5,000 years.
However the dot symbol in the Bakhshali script is the one that ultimately evolved into the hollow-centred version of the symbol that we use today. It also sowed the seed for zero as a number, which is first described in a text called Brahmasphutasiddhanta, written by the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta in 628AD.
“This becomes the birth of the concept of zero in its own right and this is a total revolution that happens out of India,” said Du Sautoy.
The development of zero as a mathematical concept may have been inspired by the region’s philosophical tradition of contemplating the void and may explain why the concept took so long to catch on in Europe. Despite developing sophisticated maths and geometry, the ancient Greeks had no symbol for zero, for instance, showing that while the concept zero may now feel familiar, it is not an obvious one.
The manuscript will be on public display on 4 October, as part of an exhibition, Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation, at the Science Museum in London.
The dot seen here in a detail from the Bakhshali manuscript, which is older than originally thought, evolved into the zero