Everybody in today’s world is aware of zero. Zero has many uses. Zero as a digit is used as a placeholder in the place value system. In the numerals, zero is used as a number.

Although zero signifies nothing, its application is humungous. It is used in mathematics, algebra, geometry, physics, geography, and everyday life use. The discovery of zero took place in a series of steps: First as a placeholder and then as a digit.

Zero is also known as nil, nought, and naught. 

The Complicated Discovery of Zero:

  • Zero was initially used as a placeholder. It was used in many civilizations, from Babylonian to Egyptian.
  • Documented accounts by historian Robert Kaplan prove that zero was used as a placeholder in Mesopotamia 5000 years ago. They were written using a pair of angled wedges. 
  • Later on, the Chinese and the Babylonians came up with their own versions of zero. Yet, both of them were used as placeholders too.
  • The people of Babylonia had trading relations with people from the Indian subcontinent. This way, the Babylonian concept of zero traveled to India.
  • Brahmagupta, a Hindu astronomer, came up with the modern equivalent of zero. He formulated a symbol that was a dot below the number. This symbol was Brahmagupta’s zero. 
  • The University of Oxford found the symbol inscribed on a wall in a temple in Gwalior. 
  • The symbol has also been found in the Bhakehali Manuscript. Originally, this manuscript was a contemporary of the period in which the temple was built. But now it has been found that the manuscript dates back to the third or fourth century
  • Zero is represented as a hollow-like structure that looks like a dot in the script. It almost signifies nothing. 
  • This script was formulated by the greatest mathematician of that time, Aryabhatta. 

The Complicated History of Zero:

In Egypt, numerals were mainly of base 10. The digits were represented using hieroglyphs, and they were not positional. 

Zero was being used around 1770 BC, in almost all Egyptian accounting texts. 

The symbol used for zero was “nfr.” It signified beauty. This symbol was also used in sculptures and tombs.

The Babylonians had developed a nuanced sexagesimal number system by the 2nd millennium BC. A space between the numbers showed the absence of zero.

Several tablets have been unearthed in the ancient city of Kish that indicate the application of zero. Therefore, zero was used as a placeholder. 

Although modern mathematicians do not consider the Babylonian placeholder as the correct representation of zero. This zero was neither used alone nor at the end of a number. Hence, it does not qualify as a placeholder.

On the other hand, the Greeks did not use zero as a placeholder. The Greek philosophers were in doubt about the application of zero. They could not grasp that we needed a symbol to signify nothingness.

It was Ptolemy who, in 150 AD, taking inspiration from Hipparchus, used zero in his work, the Almagest. He called the zero he formulated “Hellenistic Zero.” 

The “Hellenistic Zero” was applied in studying the lunar and solar eclipses.

In China, there was no designated symbol for zero. It was rather treated as a “vacant position.”

Jiushao’s book “Mathematical Treatise in Nine Sections” is probably the most primitive Chinese text where zero was used. 

Pingala, a renowned Sanskrit scholar, used binary numbers in a way similar to the Morse code. He used the Sanskrit term “sunya” in his text. Sunya means “zero” or “nothingness.” Hence, Pingala made explicit use of the word to signify the concept of zero.

Brahmagupta’s Brahmasputha Siddhanta too mentions zero. The Bakhshali script properly solidified the idea or notion of zero.

Due to trade relations, the Arab traders came into close contact with the Indian and Greek philosophers. This also leads to the interchange of information. 

In 813 AD, Muhammad Khwarizmi prepared an astronomical table with the help of Hindu numerals. In 825 AD, he published a book that synthesized Indian and Greek scientific knowledge. The book also contains his independent treatment of zero.

  • Europe:

This Hindu-Arabic mixed numeral system soon reached the shores of Europe. They opened the doors of Europe to mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy. Because this knowledge came from various Arab traders, the numerals were known as “Arabic numerals.”

Fibonacci, the famous Italian mathematician, introduced this system to the public domain. The phrase “sign 0” was used by him. He said that they could carry out addition or multiplication with this symbol.

Application of Zero

  • Zero plays a special role in physics for physical quantities. In many cases, for some quantities, zero has to be chosen. For others, zero can be naturally differentiated from all other levels.
  • Mathematics is unimaginable without zero. From equations to calculus, we need zero everywhere.
  • In computer applications, the entire binary code is dependent on zero. The binary code is made up of 0’s and 1’s.

Zero is one of the most unique and wondrous inventions of mankind. Without it, the application of many things would be difficult today. 

The history of zero is equally complicated. To learn more about the history of zero, please visit BYJU’S FutureSchool Blog. We are looking forward to hearing from you. Please share in the comments below your thoughts on this blog!

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