The Importance of Zero.

After yesterday’s lecture on place value, I was left feeling some what baffled by the binary system as even though we tried hard to crack it at our table, it wasn’t until I watched a video explaining it that it all made sense. Studying number systems closely over the past couple of weeks has sparked an interest in me for the particular digit that is zero. When making our own number system, zero was the one to cause a havoc for us as its importance is not always seen. As a matter of fact, the invention of zero was one of the most important breakthroughs in the history of civilisation.

Zero has in fact baffled many who have studied and developed mathematical theories as how can nothing (i.e. zero) be something? First, lets start with where zero came from. It all started in 520 AD with the Indian Aryabhata who used a symbol he called “kha” as a place holder which has believed to have been the concept of zero. Brahmagupta, who lived back in the 5th century developed the Hindu-Arabic number system which interestingly included zero as an definite number in his system. Furthermore, other mathematicians such as al-Khwarizmi and Leonardo Fibonacci developed the concept of zero in the number system. This concept reached the Western society during the early 1200’s.

Now we’ve got some background on where zero actually originated we can look into how important zero is. As I’m sure you know zero is the number where negative numbers on the left stretch to infinity as do positive numbers on the right. Therefore, it is neither positive nor negative, hence why you see zero as the pivotal point on thermometers, the origin point for bathroom scales, coordinate axis, etc. Additionally, zero is extremely important as its value in place holding. For example, when writing five hundred and two, how do you do so that you understand that this number has no tens. Of course, you can’t just write it as 52 as this is in fact a completely different number, hence, proving the importance of zero.

Another key element when it comes to the importance of zero is the “additive identity element”. It may sound confusing but in actually fact it’s very simple. It simply means that when you add zero to any number, you get the number you started with. For example, 7 + 0 = 7. Now, I know this may seem obvious but it is very important to have a number like this. For example, if you’re manipulating some numerical quantity and you want to change its form but no its value you might add some fancy version of zero to it.

As we’ve found out in this blog post, zero is important and can sometimes be overlooked as without it what would we do? Not only does zero fulfil a central role in maths but as the additive identity of integers, real numbers and other algebraic structures as well as being used as a placeholder in place value systems. The whole concept of zero and number systems links in with my previous blog post on the Ishango bone as this is believed to have been the first piece of evidence we have where we started using numbers. All this links with connectedness as mentioned in a previous blog post as one of Liping Ma’s 4 properties of fundamental mathematics and as zero is one of the fundamental concepts behind maths, it all ties together nicely! The importance of zero is something I will keep in the back of my mind when teaching maths to my pupils as I believe it would be enjoyable for learners to try and use maths without zero.

The importance of the creation of the zero mark can never be exaggerated. This giving to airy nothing, not merely a local habitation and a name, a picture, a symbol, but helpful power, is the characteristic of the Hindu race from whence it sprang. It is like coining the Nirvana into dynamos. No single mathematical creation has been more potent for the general on-go of intelligence and power.” G.B Halsted

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