Sci­en­tists trace con­cept of zero to In­dian man­u­script

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Han­nah Devlin Science cor­re­spon­dent

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

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