The First Zero

When did the mathematical zero begin being used? New research revealed this week by the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries shows that a manuscript from India bearing the symbol was written in the 3rd or 4th century, making it the world’s oldest recorded origin of the zero that we use today.

Carbon dating research was carried out on the Bakhshali manuscript, held at the Bodleian, a mathematical text which contains hundreds of zeroes. It was previously believed that the manuscript was created between the 8th and the 12th century. The results help to confirm the importance of the text, which was discovered in Pakistan in 1881.

“Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and is a key building block of the digital world,” commented Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. “But the creation of zero as a number in its own right, which evolved from the placeholder dot symbol found in the Bakhshali manuscript, was one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematics.

“We now know that it was as early as the 3rd century that mathematicians in India planted the seed of the idea that would later become so fundamental to the modern world. The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries.”

The zero symbol that we use today evolved from a dot that was used in ancient India and can be seen throughout the Bakhshali manuscript. The dot was originally used as a ‘placeholder’, meaning it was used to indicate orders of magnitude in a number system – for example, denoting 10s, 100s and 1000s.

Bakhshali manuscript – image courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford; Science Museum.

While the use of zero as a placeholder was seen in several different ancient cultures, such as among the ancient Mayans and Babylonians, the symbol in the Bakhshali manuscript is particularly significant for two reasons. Firstly, it is this dot that evolved to have a hollow centre and became the symbol that we use as zero today. Secondly, it was only in India that this zero developed into a number in its own right, hence creating the concept and the number zero that we understand today – this happened in 628 AD, just a few centuries after the Bakhshali manuscript was produced, when the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta wrote a text called Brahmasphutasiddhanta, which is the first document to discuss zero as a number.

Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian, added that “determining the date of the Bakhshali manuscript is of vital importance to the history of mathematics and the study of early South Asian culture and these surprising research results testify to the subcontinent’s rich and longstanding scientific tradition. The project is an excellent example of the cutting-edge research conducted by the Bodleian’s Heritage Science team, together with colleagues across Oxford University, which uncovers new information about the treasures in our collections to help inform scholarship across disciplines.”

The numerals used in the Bakhshali manuscript

See also: Why learning numbers was so hard in medieval Europe

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