Start From Zero… BY AGBA JALINGO

In Breaking News, Opinion

If you have used the Roman numerals before, you will notice easily that the figure “zero” has not always been around. The world, for a very long time, did not know and did not make use of zero. But today, it’s unthinkable to do mathematics, languages, or live without the zero, nought, nil, or nada, as we have come to call it. Zero is also sometimes referred to as ‘oh’ when saying telephone numbers.

So from where is the origin of zero? How did we indicate nothingness before zero? The first evidence of the use of “zero” is historically credited to the Sumerian culture in Mesopotamia, around 3 BC.

The “zero” wasn’t written or shaped in the manner we know it today. Rather, a slanted double wedge was inserted between cuneiform symbols for numbers, to indicate the absence of a number in a place. That’s like writing 106, the ‘0’ indicating no digit in the tens column. The Mayans devised zero in 4 A.D. as an eyelike character. All through this period, the function of zero was purely as a placeholder, it didn’t have a value of its own.

The first time we have a record of zero being a placeholder and a value in its own right was in India. About 650 AD, the mathematician Brahmagupta, used small dots under numbers to represent a zero. The dots were known as ‘sunya’, which means empty, as well as ‘kha’, which means place. So their version of zero was seen as having a null value as well as being a placeholder. Brahmagupta was also the first to show how zero could be reached via addition and subtraction and the results of operations with zero.

The zero later spread to Cambodia near the end of the seventh century, and into China and the Islamic countries at the end of the eighth century. The Chinese started writing the open circle we now use for zero. Zero did not reach Western Europe until the 12th century.

Arab merchants took the zero they found in India to Western Europe. About 773 AD, Arabian mathematician, Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khowarizmi, was the first to work on equations that were equal to zero; now known as algebra, though he called it ‘sifr’. By the ninth century, the zero was part of the Arabic numeral system in a similar shape to the present-day oval we now use. Zero finally made its way to Europe for the first time when Spain was conquered by the Moors, with translations of Al-Khowarismi’s work appearing in England around the twelfth century.

The use of zero was outlawed in Europe for a while as European governments were suspicious of Arabic numerals and the ease with which one symbol could be changed into another. The symbol we use as zero today was later accepted and since then, it has played a vital role in mathematizing the world.

It is very important to note that Italian mathematician Fibonacci played a large part in introducing zero to mainstream Europe in the 1200s, and it was adopted first by Italian merchants and German bankers for accounting purposes.

Without zero, civilization wouldn’t have progressed anywhere near as much as it has. Calculus was born by working with numbers as they approach zero and without it, we wouldn’t have modern-day physics, engineering, computing, or indeed a large part of finance and economics.

So, in this life generally, it is always more profitable to start from zero. It is possible to start from other marks, but it is more beneficial to start from zero. There are better options for organic and epochal progress than beginning from anywhere else. Ground zero is not always a place of nothingness, it is actually a point of initial value from where all other things emanate.

For further reading: The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero by Robert Kaplan, former Professor of Mathematics at Harvard University.

Citizen Agba Jalingo is the Publisher of CrossRiverWatch and a rights activist, a Cross Riverian, and writes from Lagos.

NB: Opinions expressed in this article are strictly attributable to the author, Agba Jalingo, and do not represent the opinion of CrossRiverWatch or any other organization the author works for/with.

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