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Origins of Zero: A fascinating story of science and spirituality across civilisations 

Published on 05 March 2023
Updated on 28 February 2024
Shunya - Number zero in Sanskrit

Number zero is one of the greatest inventions in history, with a profound impact on the evolution of humanity including our digital era, which is shaped by ‘0’ and ‘1’. However, little is known about the history of the number ‘zero’. Its journey started in ancient India and moved worldwide via trade and early science diplomacy.   

Aryabhata

The concept of zero is believed to have originated in the Hindu cultural and spiritual space around the 5th century CE. In Sanskrit, the word for zero is śūnya which refers to nothingness.  In scientific history, astronomer and mathematician Aryabhata is often associated with inventing the number ‘0’. 

Muḥammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi

Persia was the next important step of the journey of ‘0’ via the work of 9th century Islamic philosopher and mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, whose name was latinised to Algorithmi. In addition to being the eponym of algorithm, one of the most used terms in artificial intelligence (AI), Al Khwarizmi is the father of algebra, Indian numbers, and  ‘0’ in its centre. His work as a librarian of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad played a critical role in spreading ‘0’ via the Arab world towards the Mediterranean.

Fibonacci leonardo pisa

Next on our historical journey is Fibonacci, also known as Leonardo of Pisa, who carried the torch of ‘0’ and the Hindu-Arabic decimal system of Al-Kwarizmi, and brought it to Europe. Fibonacci learnt about ‘0’ and decimal mathematics from Arab traders he met while accompanying his father on merchant tours in Tunisia. He immediately realised the superiority of the decimal system compared to previously used Roman numbers. This new type of mathematics spread to the rest of Europe through his book, Liber Abaci (Book of Calculation), published in 1202.

Nikola Tesla

Fast forward in the late 19th and early 20th century, and here is Nikola Tesla, who laid the basis for the electronic and, ultimately, the digital age. His innovation opus includes wireless technology and other ideas that had not been deciphered until now. Like Al-Kwarizmi and Fibonacci, in the spirit of the best Mediterranean tradition, Tesla was a boundary spanner in many respects. His interest in spiritual life came from his childhood and the fact that his father was a Serbian Orthodox priest interested in the spiritual traditions of Asian cultures. Later on in his life, Tesla studied Buddhism. He wrote that many of his engineering inventions could be traced to spiritual insights.

This fascinating journey of number ‘0’ from India across civilisations, religious, and cultural divides should serve as an inspiration for our time when the widening of divides between cultures and societies increases. The number ‘0’ stands as a reminder that science and spirituality have the potential to change the world. 

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