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.