Home » Column » The Corner Table » Come, let us Re-discover Zero (1) – Where on earth did Zero come from?

Come, let us Re-discover Zero (1) – Where on earth did Zero come from?

By Robinder Sachdev & Annette van der Hoek, PhD

One of the earliest 0’s to appear on a European coin dates from 1480.

“It is India which gave us the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by means of ten symbols, each symbol receiving a value of position as well as an absolute value, a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit.  But its very simplicity, the great ease which it lent to all computation, puts our arithmetic in the first rank of useful inventions and we appreciate the grandeur of this achievement the more, when we remember that it escaped the genius of Archimedes and Apollonius, two of the greatest men produced by antiquity.” — Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749–1827), astronomer and mathematician.zero-foundation

The emergence of Zero

In the year 1492 when Columbus sailed West from Spain to find a shorter route to India, India had already impacted Europe from the East in a way that could not yet be properly fathomed at the time. One of the earliest coins minted to appear in Europe that had already switched from the awkward ‘additive’ Roman numerals to the then newly arrived ‘positional’ decimal system plus zero from India, carried the much compacter date ‘1492’ instead of the customary MCDXCII in Roman numerals. One of the earliest 0’s to appear on a European coin dates from 1480.

Most European countries only officially adopted the so-called Hindu-Arabic numerals several hundred years later, in the 17th century.  During that interval the Indian decimal system plus zero was eventually transmitted to the Americas and beyond.

The decimal system plus zero has more than proven its utility over the centuries since its invention in India by revolutionizing mathematics, science and technology, fueling the Industrial and Scientific Ages and culminating in the present Information Age and the digital world that we inhabit today, the world of 1’s and 0’s in the source codes of all our digital tools and toys.  This binary numeral system has been referred to as the little brother of the decimal system, that is, it’s limiting case.

While these are all important aspects of the decimal system plus zero, it should be self-evident once we inspect our lives more closely on this point that the decimal system plus zero is meanwhile quite ubiquitous, dominating the lives of practically all 7 billion of us on the globe from birth to death, literally and figuratively.  You cannot avoid those 10 little digits if you tried.

But while much is known about the evolution of the precursors of the decimal system in India (from Kharosthi to Brahmi, both without zero), little is known about the sudden and as yet inexplicable emergence of the zero digit as fully-fledged number alongside the other nine digits.  When and where on earth did zero see the light? And who might be the person that transformed the world in a flash of game-changing innovation?

Related Story: Come, let us re-discover Zero (2) – Zero, jewel in the crown of India

Related Story: Come, let us re-discover Zero (3) – Zero, India’s biggest export product ever

Re-discovering Zero

High time then that a systematic attempt is made by qualified and inter-disciplinary academics to conduct a research program to establish once and for all the origin of the zero digit. The Dutch-based non-profit ZerOrigIndia Foundation has set itself this task, and is launching the pilot project Camp Zero 2016 at New Delhi from December 12 – 17.  The Foundation is doing so in close association with acknowledged authority on ancient Indian mathematics and astronomy, Professor K. Ramasubramaniam of the Indian Institute of Technology Mumbai, one of India’s premier research institution.

In pursuit of its mission, the Foundation is preparing to sponsor research and discovery, and awareness, at multiple levels, including to establish 4 fully paid-up Ph D students at key eminent universities world-wide. The first Camp Zero 2016 at New Delhi, to be followed early next year by a second Camp Zero at IIT Mumbai, will generate and prepare the research focus areas that will be undertaken by the selected scholars.

In an endorsement by one of Holland’s most respected Indologists emeritus Professor Johannes Bronkhorst of the University of Lausanne: “If research sponsored by the ZerOrigIndia Foundation will shed light on this last question, not only Indologists and historians of mathematics will be grateful. Understanding how and why the great inventions were made that made modern science and technology possible, concerns all mankind. And the invention of zero certainly ranks among the greatest.”

We hope that our column has ignited some curiosity in you about the origin and invention of zero – and if so, please visit the website www.zerorigindia.org to stay updated and also to find out how you can be involved or support in the re-discovery of zero!

Robinder Sachdev, President of Imagindia Institute, is a Trustee of the ZerOrigIndia Foundation, The Hague; and, Annette va der Hoek, PhD, is an Indologist, and Research Coordinator of ZerOrigIndia Foundation, The Hague.