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Zero’s journey from nothing to everything

The biggest paradox in the history of our planet is a number that, at first glance, depicts nothing–zero. In fact, it is this seemingly insignificant digit that adds meaning to everything. When Soulveda tried to trace its fascinating history, we found that both as a number and a concept, zero is a perplexing thought.

As a concept, zero balances itself precariously on metaphysics. So leaving the concept aside for now, let’s just take a look at the number.

What is zero?

Zero is an abstract mathematical quality. It is not ‘nothing’ when it comes to math. Instead, it is a quantity that can be manipulated to make sense. While dealing with the number is simpler as compared to the concept, it can still leave you rather dumbfounded. How can something that adds value to other numbers be used to denote nothing at the same time?

“Zero was actually a leap in the history of mathematics. In the beginning, we may have needed to understand things like ‘five sheep’, ‘five cows’, or ‘five sacks of grain’, but eventually, the idea of ‘five’ became separate from what it was counting, and we developed the idea of ‘five’ as something in its own right,” says mathematician and public speaker Dr James Grime.

“Zero was more difficult. Zero means nothing–and how can nothing be something? This required another level of abstraction, more so than other numbers, but mathematics is all about abstraction. By abstraction we are no longer limited to certain problems about ‘sheep’, ‘cows’ or ‘grain’, but can use the same ideas to solve more problems. That is a good description of mathematics itself,” he adds.

Zero might be a mathematician’s delight but it wasn’t accepted in the real world so easily.

So how did ‘nothing’ become a number?

While the Sumerians were the first to develop the counting system, zero was invented independently by the Babylonians, Mayans and the Indians. It is believed that Indian mathematicians–astronomer Brahmagupta in particular–took the concept of nothingness and converted it into a number, calling it Shunya (void). They also wrote down the mathematical rules for it. The shape wasn’t an oval back then. Instead, dots were used underneath numbers to signify zeros.

Zero made its way into the Arab empire through India. Now being called Sifr, it was used by Al-Khowarizmi (the inventor of algebra). It ultimately reached Europe with the conquest of Spain by the Moors, which is when Italian mathematician Fibonacci started using it for equations. His methods were soon adopted by bankers and traders.

The earliest record of the number zero is a Cambodian inscription, popularly known as K-127. Dating back to 683 AD, it was lost during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. However, its oldest record in India (876 AD) is on a wall of the rock-cut Chaturbhuj temple in Gwalior.

The twist in the tale

Zero might be a mathematician’s delight but it wasn’t accepted in the real world so easily. Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, the world followed the Aristotelian doctrine which proved the existence of God. The doctrine didn’t acknowledge the void and infinity, and so, didn’t acknowledge the number zero. Christianity tied with Aristotle’s view and questioning him meant questioning the existence of god. It is said that zero took the centre stage of renaissance during this period as trade demanded it and the church rejected it.

If the digit hasn’t managed to perplex you yet, try this: Divide six apples between three people. The basic calculation would be 6/3=2, so two apples each.

Now, try dividing six apples among six people. So, 6/6=1. One apple each.

Now divide six apples between zero people. First of all, the question doesn’t make sense. But zero is a number and we should be able to divide by it like any other number. The answer to this is a contradiction as 6/0=? Undefined.

And so, zero is fine by itself, but the moment it comes to dividing it, all hell breaks loose.


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