The origin of zero: First evidence of the symbol is discovered in the Indian Bakhshali manuscript dating back to the 3rd century
17 September, 2017, 06:50
The zero symbol that we use today evolved from a dot frequently used in India - the round symbol can be seen several times on the Bakhshali manuscrip.
The date of the manuscript has intrigued scholars for years, with many believing it dated from the 9th century, as does the oldest known example of a zero in India, in Gwailor temple. The exact age of the document has not been determined, which is why in early 2017, researchers from the University of Oxford's Bodleian Libraries and the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit collaborated on a project to finally carbon date the document. It was, however, the dot symbol in the Bakhshali script that ultimately evolved into the hollow-centred version of the symbol that we use today, which was first described in a text called Brahmasphutasiddhanta, written by Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta in 628AD. India was also the place where the symbolic placeholder developed into a number in its own right, and the concept of the figure zero as it exists today, was born.
Along with the text, it has hundreds of zeroes denoted by a dot (as in the image). According to the university's Marcus du Sautoy, the book of some 70 birch bark pages "seems to be a training manual for Buddhist monks".
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The ancient Sanskrit text was discovered near the village of Bakhshali in modern-day Pakistan in 1881 and has been at Oxford's Bodleian library since 1902.
Librarian Richard Ovenden said the discovery was of "vital importance to the history of mathematics and the study of early South Asian culture". It was discovered by a local farmer and later acquired by the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
The new conclusion was arrived upon after a carbon-dating test on an Indian manuscript at Oxford University revealed that it dated back to the 3rd or 4th Century AD. "There's a lot of 'If someone buys this and sells this how much have they got left?'" Other, more ancient cultures used similar placeholders, such as the Mayans, who used the symbol of a shell, and the Babylonians, who used a double wedge. Studies on the manuscript conducted by Japanese scholar Hayashi Takao, had stated that the text could have been as old as the eighth century and as new as the 12th century, based on the style of writing and and mathematical content. "But there was a moment when there wasn't this number". The dot was originally used as a placeholder, like how "0" is used in the number 505 to denote that there are no tens, but was not yet a number in its own right. Their findings show that we were far off the mark in estimating the text's date of origin - hailing from somewhere between 224AD and 383AD instead of the commonly-assumed 9th century (801-900AD) - with deep implications for the history of mathematics.
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