Scientists have traced the origins to zero which is considered as one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematics to an ancient Indian text, known as the Bakhshali manuscript. According to multiple media reports, this text was housed in the UK since 1902. This means that the origin of zero dates to as early as the 3rd or 4th century, about 500 years older than scholars previously believed. It also makes it the world’s oldest recorded origin of the zero symbol that we use today.
Talking about this development, Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford said that today we are so dependent on the zero but there was a time when this number didn’t even exist. “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,” he was quoted as saying by The Guardian.
The Bodleian Library in Oxford acquired the Bakhshali manuscript from a local farmer who had reportedly buried it in a field in a village called Bakhshali, near Peshawar, in what is now a region of Pakistan. The translation of text has revealed that it was actually a form of a training manual for merchants trading across the Silk Road.
However, zero doesn’t feature as a number in this script but as a placeholder in a number system, just as the ‘0’ in ‘101’ indicates no tens. The zero that appeared in the Bakhshali script is the one that ultimately evolved into the hollow-centred version of the symbol that we use today. It also sowed the seed for zero as a number, which is first described in a text called Brahmasphutasiddhanta, written by the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta in 628AD.
“This is coming out of a culture that is quite happy to conceive of the void, to conceive of the infinite,” said Du Sautoy. “That is exciting to recognise, that culture is important in making big mathematical breakthroughs,” he added.