Jasmin Bajagan, AS

Zero, the number that represents an empty quantity, is significant in mathematics as it is required for writing numbers in positional notation. Zero has a crucial importance in the modern computer world since the programming code that is written to control computers is composed of 1s and 0s. The question at hand is, how did zero come into use and who invented the concept that frankly turned the world of mathematics upside down.

It is believed that Aryabhatta, an Indian mathematician and astronomer was the one who invented zero in the fifth century. Born during the rule of the Gupta Dynasty in 476 CE, he was known for his remarkable contributions in the field of mathematics and astronomy. Aryabhatta used zero as a placeholder number and hence introduced it in mathematics. He did not, however, employ a symbol for zero at the time, which has led to discussions over whether he genuinely invented zero or not. According to French mathematician Georges Ifrah, Aryabhata’s place-value system implicitly used zero as a placeholder for powers of ten with null coefficients.

Following the revelations of Aryabhatta, the earliest known techniques for using zero in mathematics were created by a man called Brahmagupta. He too was an Indian mathematician and astronomer born in 598 CE. He defined zero as the number you get when you subtract a number from itself and pointed out that zero divided by any other number is equal to zero. Brahmagupta named what we now call zero in English, “shunya” or “sunya” which is a Sanskrit word meaning nothingness, emptiness, or void. Although the findings of Brahmagupta may seem insignificant to us in today’s world, this breakthrough was a huge leap due to which mathematics and science have progressed substantially.

Apart from the inventions of the Indian mathematicians, it is theorized that the origin of zero dates to the Sumerian culture in ancient Mesopotamia where a slanted double wedge was inserted to indicate the absence of a number in a place. These early counting systems only used zero as a placeholder instead of a number with its own unique value which is why Brahmagupta is mostly accredited for correctly using zero and describing its properties. From India, zero made its way to China and to the Middle East where a mathematician named Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khowarizzmi studied and integrated Indian arithmetic to show how zero functioned in the system of formulas he called, ‘aljabr’ known in the present world as algebra. By the tenth century, zero had set foot in the Arabic numeral system in a form bearing resemblance to the oval shape that is used today.

Sometime around the 1100s, zero finally reached Europe from where mathematicians like Fibonacci introduced it to the mainstream. Since then, the concept of “nothing” has been an integral part of the development of many fields such as physics, economics, engineering, and computer science.

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