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What is the number zero?

It means to me and probably to you that it is the simplest number known yet.

A Symbol of nothing, emptiness and origin all at the same time. Behind this seemingly simple answer lays the story of an idea that took many centuries to develop, many countries to cross, and many minds to comprehend.

Understanding and working with zero is the basis of our world today; without zero we would lack calculus, financial accounting, the ability to make arithmetic calculations quickly, and, especially lack the fundamentals of today’s connected world through computers and other advanced technology. The story of zero is an idea that has intrigued the imagination of many great minds across the globe.

To make it short, the first origins of zero come from -5000 BC , where its only use was a placeholder. The concept interested a lot of scientists through the different societies until it was first used as we know it in India. The expert mathematicians among the Ancient Greeks, who learned the basics of their math from the Egyptians, did not have a name for zero, and their system did not have a placeholder as did the Babylonian system. They may have questioned the reality of zero, but there is no conclusive evidence to say the symbol even existed in their language. Moreover, their philosophy couldn't allow them to imagine a number that represented the nothing; it was irrational to them. This was a similar case for the Romans or the christians who didn't believe in it because of the way their religion worked and what it would signify. It was the Indians who began to understand zero both as a symbol and as an idea.

Brahmagupta, around 650 AD, was the first to formalize arithmetic operations using zero. First, the great Arabian voyagers would bring the texts of Brahmagupta and his colleagues back from India along with spices and other exotic items. Zero reached Baghdad by 773 AD and would be developed in the Middle East by Arabian mathematicians who would base their numbers on the Indian system. In the ninth century, Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khowarizmi was the first to work on equations that equaled zero, or algebra as we call it today. He also developed quick methods for multiplying and dividing numbers known as algorithms. Al-Khowarizmi called zero ‘sifr’, from which our cipher comes from. By 879 AD, zero was written almost as we now know it, an oval , but in this case smaller than the other numbers. Thanks to the conquest of Spain by the Moors, zero finally reached Europe. It then came into the hands of Leonardo Fibonacci and other great mathematicians like Rene Descartes who used the numbers (0,0) for the origin of his plan.

We can agree that the story of zero is not easy going as we could imagine, since it's one of the first numbers we learn at school. But the improvement of the human mind created the number and found the way to use it. Zero becomes even more important in our life since it is used in computer science and programming, our technology is full of zeros! Florent.


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Tommy Yeung
Tommy Yeung
May 20, 2021



Good explaination, Florent.

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