Monday, Oct 21, 2002
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Letters to the Editor
Sir, In protesting against your Editorial on the NCERT textbooks, Dr. Makkhan Lal (Oct. 17) provides ample proof, if proof were needed, of the kind of authors the National Council for Education Research and Training has picked for its textbooks. Dr. Lal is blissfully unaware that the decimal system has nothing to do with `zero'. The Romans counted with tens and hundreds, but represented ten by `X' and hundred by `C', not 10 and 100. In our own early Brahmi and Kharoshthi scripts, the signs of ten and hundred are represented by different single figures. No inscription (pre-Gupta or Gupta) records zero: mentioning one hundred-and-three does not mean the use of zero (compare CIII in Roman numerals). The Vedic seers transmitted their compositions by oral discourse, so they never wrote either 10 or 100. Let Dr. Lal also consider this: ever since our ancestors looked at their two thumbs and eight fingers, they knew of ten: there was no need for them to wait until the Rigveda's time for this stupendous discovery. But zero has nothing to do with it.
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Sir, Dr. Makkhan Lal in is letter (Oct. 17) asks: "How can 10, 100 or 1000 be imagined without a zero?" The answer is simple. Decimal numeration (counting numbers as multiples of 10) is different from writing them with place value notation using zero. While the former has been practised by most civilizations (probably because humans have 10 digits), the latter is the contribution of India.
The first appearance of zero occurs in Bakshali manuscript, which has been dated by most historians at around 200 A.D.
The difference between the two can be understood easily if one takes the example of the Roman numerals. They also count in multiples of 10, but use symbols like X, C and M to denote 10, 100 and 1000. In fact, as the name of the famous book by Leonardo of Pisa, Liber Abaci implies, European mathematics was liberated by the introduction of the Indian numerals in the 12th century.
R.V.G. Menon Haritha,
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