APRIL 24, 2012 5:47PM

HOW WE GOT THE ZERO ... AND WHAT IT TEACHES US

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 Arshad M Khan

Babylonians — oh yes! it’s the Iraqis again — developed a zero about 300 B.C. It was represented by two slanted wedges on their clay tablets and served as a place holder in the sexagesimal (base 60 unlike our current base 10) system they used. By the way, there is something to be said for base 60 because it is divisible by 2, 3, 4 and 5, so one can get halves, thirds, etc. without going to a second or more decimal places. Our base 10 system forces us into two decimal places for a quarter and an infinite number for a third, wasting computer time and leading to inaccuracies because of approximations that have to be fudged for such mundane computations as calculating interest in savings accounts.

Over time the zero seems to have traveled to India — perhaps elsewhere too but evidence for that has not been unearthed yet. A dot carved on the wall of the fifth-century A.D. Chaturbhuja Temple in Gwalior is the earliest evidence. The seventh century Indian Mathematician Brahmagupta expanded on the remarkable properties of zero: multiply anything by it and lo and behold, it, too, becomes nothing. Credit where it’s due … the Mayans in the Americas also developed a zero independently to ease calculations in their astronomical investigations.

Muslim mathematicians picked up on the usefulness of the zero and brought it back to Baghdad whence it spread throughout their civilization into Spain. Europeans preferred to stick to Roman numerals until the Italian mathematician, Fibonacci, reminded them of their idiocy in a textbook published in 1202 A.D. What we know now as Arabic numerals (incorporating zero) were eventually adopted.

Without a zero, differential equations would be impossible to solve and much of engineering would grind to a halt; negative and imaginary numbers would have no meaning; neither would the 0, 1 binary system, the mainstay of our computers. And you would not be reading this on yours.

Humans learning from each other to improve the lives of humankind — something we seem to forget as we reinforce prejudices based on fictitious or anecdotal data. Imagine if we could incorporate the Jain attitude to non-violence, the Buddhist aspiration to self-denial and improvement, the Christian belief in forgiveness, the Jewish focus on law, the Muslim prescription to mercy, the Confucian predilection for respect and harmony, Hindu philosophy, etc., etc. Unfortunately trust is absent … and, some might say, for good reason. Is that our challenge then — to replace mistrust with deserved trust? The alternative might literally be a zero future.

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