By Robinder Sachdev and Annette van der Hoek, Ph D
The search for the origin of zero in India is not merely born out of historic curiosity.
“The invention of zero is the most important in the whole history of mathematics. The bulk of literature on mathematics could not have been written without zero.” – Prof. Laurent Lafforgue, Professor at the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies, (France ) and Fields Medalist in Mathematics, UNESCO Conference on Zero, Paris, April 5, 2016.
The previous two articles (part 1 and part 2, of Come, let us re-discover Zero) hopefully established the profound significance of the invention of zero in revolutionizing modern mathematics. But what of physics and even quantum physics?
Zero across continents and cultures, over history
In India itself and later in the Islamic world, the invention of zero as part of the decimal system had already led to great advances in astronomy after 500CE.
It is probably not too far-fetched to suggest that the arrival of zero in Mediaeval Europe to some extent at least helped to herald the Renaissance that eventually ushered in the Scientific, Industrial and Information Age, that is, the Digital Age of computers and smart phones that we inhabit today.
According to emeritus professor Brian Rotman in his book Signifying Nothing: The Semiotic of Zero: “The mathematical sign we know as zero entered European consciousness with difficulty and incomprehension. It appears to have originated some 1300 years ago in Central India as the distinguishing element in the now familiar Hindu system of numerals. Between the tenth and the thirteenth century the sign stayed within the confines of Arab culture, resisted by Christian Europe, and dismissed by those whose function it was to handle numbers as an incomprehensible and unnecessary symbol.”
The notion of the physical vacuum long rejected out of hand on the authority of the Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle, was eventually challenged successfully by Galileo’s student Torricelli, who invented the barometer. In his wake, other European mathematicians and scientists followed suit.Was this a coincidence or may it be linked to the then new decimal system plus zero and the implicit concept of infinity?
Rotman again says: “Pascal, Torricelli, Newton and others did not, after all, exist in a semiotic void with regard to ‘nothing’. They had at their disposal, and were in fact immersed in, the whole practice and mode of discourse about ‘nothing’ built into the Hindu numeral system. But, as will be obvious by now, the mathematical infinite was the fruit of the mathematical nothing: it is only by virtue of zero that infinity comes to be signifiable in mathematics.”
Zero, inspired and birthed by philosophy of Shunyata, Emptiness
It is the working hypothesis of the ZerOrigIndia Foundation that the mathematical zero or shunya may have been inspired by the then prevailing Philosophy of Emptiness or Shunyata, based on the age-old Vedic concept of shunya/purna. The so-called Catuskoti or Tetralemma, Shunyata’s basic framework formulated by Nagarjuna (c.150 CE), was scrutinized by the theoretical physicist Professor Raphael D. Sorkin of the prestigious Perimeter Institute (Canada).
Sorkin, in his article titled To What Type of Logic Does the “Tetralemma” Belong, writes, “Considered from the standpoint of classical logic, the fourfold structure of the so-called tetralemma (catuṣkoṭi) appears to be irrational, and modern commentators have often struggled to explain its peculiar combination of alternatives. A possible answer comes from quantum mechanics, where certain alternative logics have been proposed as a solution to the paradoxes that arise in the attempt to describe subatomic reality. To the extent that Indian thinkers in the time of Gotama were aware of this possibility, they would naturally have phrased their questions in “tetralemmatic” form. They cannot have had access to the kind of technology that has led in modern times to quantum physics.”
Dancing the cosmic dance
The plaque accompanying the 2-meter statue of the dancing Shiva unveiled at CERN, the European Center for Research in Particle Physics in Geneva in 2004, quotes physicist Fritjof Capra as follows: “Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shivas in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our time, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art and modern physics.”
In sum, the search for the origin of zero in India is not merely born out of historic curiosity, but highly relevant in our day and age. By gaining a better understanding of the dynamic that led to the innovation of zero in India long ago, practical carry-over value may be obtained that could well lead to further innovation in future. It shall also enhance frugal innovations and inventions to aid the human condition in the world of today which needs a range of solutions to the transformation and challenges it faces today – since the minimum of frugal is nothing – zero.
Given that the decimal system plus zero impacts the lives of each of the 7 billion-plus persons on Earth, and as is becoming more and more apparent that zero has fuelled scientific discoveries since, zero may rightly be seen as India’s biggest export product ever.
If you the reader has read these articles so far – thank you! The work of ZerOrigIndia Foundation is dedicated to bringing academic rigour to explore the roots of zero, and to share and bring awareness about philosophy and spirituality in this tumultuous ride of life that we all are journeying on. The Foundation is actively fund-raising in order to provide scholarships to Ph D and post-Post Ph D students to do interdisciplinary research on the origins and invention of zero. Please contact the Foundation if you would like to support the work of ZerOrigIndia, or share with family and friends.
Robinder Sachdev, President of Imagindia Institute, is a Trustee of the ZerOrigIndia Foundation, The Hague; and, Annette va der Hoek, PhD, an Indologist, is a Research Coordinator of ZerOrigIndia Foundation, The Hague.