It is greater than God, it is more evil than the devil, the poor have it, the rich need it and if you eat** **it you’ll die. What is it?

Nothing.

Zero- arguably, the most important number in mathematics. Think of the number seven hundred, seven thousand or seven million, what you’re thinking of is the digit 7 followed by a number of zeros- right? Zero is a place holder, without it numbers would lose great value, imagine having a zero taken off (or added on!) to your salary! But what is it’s history? Where does the number zero come from and has it always been important?

The Ancient Egyptians were one of the first civilisations to practice mathematics and used symbols similar to their well known hieroglyphics to symbolise numbers (as shown below). However, the Ancient Egyptians did not have a symbol for 0 and even without this, they became very well respected mathematicians.

Some, maybe less well known, mathematicians are the Babylonians. They made a huge first step in coming up with a place holder or a number 0. They’re number system was a base 60 system with one symbol for units and one for tens (as shown below) but still there was no symbol for 0. The Babylonians continued without a ‘zero’ for many years using just a blank space as a place holder. However this could get confusing and mathematicians could easily forget to leave the space. So, during the fourth to first centuries B.C Babylonian mathematicians and astronomers developed two signs to represent a ‘space’.

Babylonian Zeros (above)

Despite the Babylonian’s great step towards finding a place holder within mathematics, many sources credit the Indians for first imagining the idea of a ‘zero’. In the 7th Century, Indian mathematician, Brahmagupta wrote some very important works on both mathematics and astronomy. A text called ‘Brahmasphutasiddhanta’ which contains many different mathematical ‘rules’ was written by Brahmagupta. This is the earliest known text which attempts to define zero as a number in its own right and not just as a place holder as the Babylonians used it. Brahmagupta established, what are now considered as basic rules for dealing with the number zero (i.e 1+0=1, 1-0=1, 1×0=0).

Throughout my time researching for this blog post I have found that the origin of the number zero is a lot more complex than I had first thought it would be. Many of the sources I found contradicted each other and it is clear to me that nobody is 100% sure where the number zero originated or who invented it. What has been made clear to me through this blog is that numbers are very complex and many people have been developing them over many years.

References:

http://discoveringegypt.com/egyptian-hieroglyphic-writing/egyptian-mathematics-numbers-hieroglyphs/

http://www.und.edu/instruct/lgeller/zeroph.html

http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/HistTopics/Babylonian_numerals.html

http://www.storyofmathematics.com/indian_brahmagupta.html

Richard HolmeThis is great – I was sure myself that it was Brahmagupta that came up with 0. But this raises the questions that the concept of nothing (ie not having anything) is not be the same as a place holder allowing for more complex concepts like decimal notation. I now need to go explore this myself some more. I wanted to be made to think, and have my mind expanded by this module, and you have gone and done this,

Thank you for this!

Richard