IN SCHOOL

Ancient Indian Bakshali text contains earliest zero!

NOTHING FOUNDThe Bakhshali manuscript to be displayed on October 4 at the Science Museum in London. Photo WIKICOMMONS  

Nowt, nada, zilch: there is nothing new about nothingness. But the moment that the absence of stuff became zero, a number in its own right, is regarded as one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematics.

Now scientists have traced the origins of this conceptual leap to an ancient Indian text, known as the Bakhshali manuscript — a text which has been housed in the UK since 1902.

Radiocarbon dating uncovered the mystery

Radiocarbon dating reveals the fragmentary text, which is inscribed on 70 pieces of birch bark and contains hundreds of zeroes, dates to as early as the 3rd or 4th century — about 500 years older than scholars previously believed. This makes it the world’s oldest recorded origin of the zero symbol that we use today.

Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, said: “Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and our whole digital world is based on nothing or something. But there was a moment when there wasn’t this number.”

What it means

Translations of the text, which is written in a form of Sanskrit, suggest it was a form of training manual for merchants trading across the Silk Road , and it includes practical arithmetic exercises and something approaching algebra.

In the fragile document, zero does not yet feature as a number in its own right, but as a placeholder in a number system, just as the “0” in “101” indicates no tens. It features a problem to which the answer is zero, but here the answer is left blank.

Several ancient cultures independently came up with similar placeholder symbols.

However, the dot symbol in the Bakhshali script is the one that ultimately evolved into the hollow—centred version of the symbol that we use today.

These surprising research results testify to the subcontinent’s rich and longstanding scientific tradition,” he said.

Richard Ovenden, head of the Bodleian Library, said the results highlight a Western bias that has seen the contributions of South Asian scholars being overlooked.Guardian News Service