Zero – The importance of nothing

Everyone knows what ‘zero’ is. It’s nothing, right? But when it is put next to another number, it becomes a whole lot more. The idea of this magic number most probably started in India, many centuries ago.

Marcus du Sautoy, a professor of mathematics at the famous Oxford University, says it was mathematicians in India in the 3rd Century who first got the idea of ‘zero’. It went on to become hugely important in almost every aspect of modern life.

Ancient Indians were very interested in mathematics and astronomy, or the study of stars, planets and happenings in the universe. Aryabhatta was a famous Indian mathematician and astronomer who was born late in the 5th century AD. He and others like Brahmagupta worked on calculations which would have been impossible without using ‘zero’.

Traders from the Middle East who came to India to buy spices and other goods, took back this idea, and mathematicians in Baghdad developed it further. It was in Arabia that the little circle which we are all so familiar with today first became the symbol for ‘zero’.

The Bhakshali Manuscript, a mathematical text written on a strip of bark from a tree, contains references to the symbol of ‘zero’. It was probably written as long ago as the 4th Century AD. It is the oldest Indian record of ‘zero’ now available to us. A message carved on a temple wall in Gwalior, which historians say, was done around the 9th Century, also has ‘zero’ in it.

Today, physics, engineering and of course mathematics are some fields which cannot do without zero. And it is a basic requirement in computer programming. Software is used in almost every field of life. So ‘Zero’ is truly a Hero.

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