Journey of Zero: How a simple number revolutionised the world from ancient India to our digital era
Updated on 02 November 2023
The number zero is a cornerstone of modern mathematics, technology, and the digital world. Its origins are rooted in the philosophical concepts of ancient South and Southeast Asia, and its journey to Western Europe is a fascinating tale of cultural exchange, scientific discovery, and technological advancement.
This article explores the evolution of zero, charting its journey from its origins in Indian space to its dissemination through the Arab world and, eventually, its arrival in Europe, where it revolutionised Western mathematics and laid the foundation for modern science and technology.
While there are other instances of the use of zero (see textbox below), our focus is on the direct lineage of zero from Asia, through the Mediterranean, to Europe, and beyond.
Zero in Ancient India
The concept of zero, termed ‘Shunya’ in Hindi, has deep roots in ancient Indian philosophical and religious traditions. ‘Shunyata’, often translated as ’emptiness’ or ‘void’, holds significant importance in Buddhism. The renowned philosopher Nagarjuna, active around the 2nd century CE, anchored Mahayana Buddhism on the principle of ’emptiness’, emphasising the interdependent existence of phenomena.
This philosophical understanding of ’emptiness’ or ‘void’ laid the groundwork for the mathematical adoption of the number zero. By the 6th century AD, prominent Indian mathematicians like Aryabhata and Brahmagupta had begun employing zero as a placeholder in their calculations.
To date, archaeological efforts have unveiled two significant artefacts in India that demonstrate the early use of the numeral zero:
Birth of algebra in the Islamic Golden Age
In the 9th century, during the intellectual flourishing of the Islamic Golden Age, zero became fully integrated into mathematics. This critical development was spearheaded by the Persian scholar Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, celebrated as the father of algebra. In the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, Al-Kwharizmi developed an Arabic numeric system with the number zero, called in Arabic ‘sifr’.
The transmission of the zero concepts from India to Europe was expedited by the Latin translation of al-Khwarizmī’s seminal work, Algoritmo de Numero Indorum, in the 12th century. This translation served as a pivotal conduit, connecting the mathematical legacies of ancient India with the Arab world and, subsequently, with Europe. This served as the foundation for the zero concept’s wider adoption, which Arab traders also helped to facilitate.
Zero in the digital era
The evolution of zero culminates in its central role in today’s digital world. In the binary system, which forms the basis of modern computing, digits 0 and 1 represent one bit. This seemingly simple binary language has led to the formation of bytes, kilobytes, megabytes, terabytes, and beyond, shaping the digital landscape we experience today.
The journey of zero is a testament to the power of cross-cultural exchange, human curiosity, and technological innovation. From its philosophical origins in ancient India to its mathematical maturity in the Arab world, and finally to its global adoption,
Zero has transformed human thought and society. Zero’s contributions to mathematics, physics, and digitalisation are fundamental and continue to resonate in our modern world, underscoring the profound importance of this seemingly simple number.