Frequently Asked Questions!

Why do FAQ always start at serial number 1 instead of 0?

Good question.

Where the heck did those numbers come from anyway?

India.  But controversy remains among some scholars, who point to regions either to the east or the west of present-day India.

Do we know when the zero digit first arose?

No.  Only the general period somewhere between 200 BCE and 500 CE.

Do we know who invented the zero digit?

No. There is considerable circumstantial evidence of literary antecedents of zero in India, such as the predisposition of the Sanskrit language towards the decimal system.  But also reference to the use of decimal word numerals early on.

Aryabhata I (5th century CE), great mathematician and astronomer, is often credited with inventing zero because so-called positional decimal notation is used in his treatise Aryabhatiya (499).  But Aryabhata used words to describe numbers, and so no symbol for zero.  There is also a major difference between zero as placeholder and zero as fully-fledged numeral alongside the other digits from 1 to 9.

Certainly Brahmagupta (born 598) defined the zero digit and its mathematical operations in his work Brāhmasphuṭasiddhānta.  But it is not known if Brahmagupta himself innovated the zero digit or if it may already have been in use earlier in India.

It may well have been and hence the quest for the origin of the zero digit. The entire issue must be re-examined in all its aspects in order to settle these questions and perhaps unearth fresh evidence in the process. 

Why is the zero digit so important?

The zero digit constitutes ‘closure’ of the decimal system, not only by facilitating positional notation determining the magnitude of numerals by factors of ten from right to left in a number, but also by acting as numeral in its own right.

Consequently the decimal system proved the most efficient system for representing any number conveniently and permitting calculation.

Not surprisingly it has since been adopted by practically all nations in the world.

And why is it important to come to know more about the origin of the zero digit?

The working hypothesis of the zero-project is that the innovation of the mathematical zero (shunya) may have been inspired by the then prevailing Buddhist philosophy of Emptiness (Shunyata), as is also asserted in various references in the literature on the subject (please see Appendix II in the Crowdsourcing document elsewhere on the ‘About Us’ page of this website).

If a philosophical connection is found, the zero digit would thus point back to its cultural roots in the Vedic tradition via the relatively late Buddhist tradition to the concept of ‘emptiness’ as evolved in the Vedas and Upanishads.

What distinguishes the Indic tradition from say the Western (Greek) tradition is the principle of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), which was discounted by the Greeks, a dogma later adopted by the Christian Church in Europe that led to the censure of the decimal system including zero when it finally arrived in Europe in the 13th century.

Just as the zero digit may owe its innovation to the philosophy of Emptiness, just so it may account for the absence of a zero digit in Europe.

What would science and technology be like today without zero?

Without zero and the decimal system there would likely not have been the revolutionary progress in science and technology that we have witnessed.

Without zero, no Industrial or Digital Revolution, no computers (the binary system used in computer program coding is the limiting case of the decimal system), nor any of the sophisticated equipment that characterizes the modern world.

Could it be that the zero digit may as yet hold more secrets than have so far been fathomed, such as perhaps the disparate logic or syntax that characterizes the decimal system in which it is embedded?

There is evidence that points in that direction and as such worth further investigation.  Logician Nakamura recognized in the Tetralemma or Catuskoti of Nagajuna, considered the father of the philosophy of Emptiness, the definition of the ‘null class’ as defined in modern set theory and formal logic.

And physicist Sorkin concluded that Nagarjuna’s Tetralemma constitutes a disparate logic that better solves the riddles of quantum physics than does classical logic.

What role, if any, did the Netherlands play in the evolution and dissemination of the decimal system plus zero?

17th-century mathematician, civil engineer and inventor, Simon Stevin, advisor to the then Stadtholder of the Netherlands, Prince Maurice, was among the first in the Netherlands to recognize the significance of the decimal system and helped to have the ‘Hindu numerals’ to be officially adopted in the Netherlands in favor of the former Roman numerals.

Simon Stevin, while he did not innovate the concept of decimal fractions, he was instrumental in popularizing their use.

Is the default necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention account plausible, that the zero digit was invented when it was required by complex calculations in mathematics and astronomy?

That default account does not appear to be convincing because, if so, why was the zero digit not invented earlier and elsewhere in other advanced civilization that engaged in complex calculations in mathematics and astronomy?

Rather more plausible would be the argument that a sophisticated philosophical mindset was instrumental in even being able to conceive of ‘nothingness’ to be represented by a symbol.

Thus the ancient Greeks, based on their Aristotelian 2-value logic, dogmatically discounted the concept of emptiness by arguing that nothing could not be something, whereas in India emptiness and fullness as polar opposites were seen as complementary, a necessary precondition for the existence of each extreme.

It likely facilitated the innovation of the zero digit when the time came, perhaps not coincidentally precisely during the very period when the Buddhist theory of Emptiness or Shunyata prevailed in India (200 BCE-500CE).

In fact the very early evolving concept of emptiness/fullness had already manifested in prose, poetry, visual arts, music and even architecture, and as such the mathematical pendant was a relative latecomer compared to the other cultural disciplines?

Is it not conceivable that the absence of the concept of ‘emptiness’, which had for centuries been dogmatically discounted and even banned in the Europe, may have prevented discoveries in science, such as the vacuum, and even the quantum vacuum, had the zero digit not been introduced as part of the decimal system in the 13th century?

It would seem improbable given the then prevalent stark black-and-white thinking, based on the doctrinal prejudice of European civilization at that time. And consequently there may not have been a scientific revolution nor therefore a Digital Age, so characteristic of the modern world in which we live today.

In that sense there may well be a causal relationship to account for the progress in science and technology following the exploration of the concept of emptiness by thinkers in Europe introduced by stealth, as it were, via the zero digit as part of the decimal system when it finally gained a foothold owing to its great utility in calculation in commerce and in computation in mathematics and astronomy.

Blaise Pascal, the French scientist, for example, faced an uphill battle to prove that the vacuum did exist, whereas the vacuum was considered to be impossible, nonsensical owing to prevailing dogma.

Compare even today the disbelieve of modern physicist in reconciling the mind-boggling phenomenon of the quantum vacuum comprising a seething cauldron of virtual particles, rather than to be, literally an empty vacuum, as classical logic would dictate.  It illustrates the fact that even after hundreds of years of exposure to the decimal system plus zero, the concept of complementarity has not yet become second nature.

The proposed research project could possibly shed light on this entire issue, but given that it may take years and require funding, to engage qualified specialists, the general public could play a vital role in achieving the aim of unearthing any extant evidence of the zero digit in India.

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