Clash of Symbols

Book cover - Clash of Symbols

I became interested in glyphs through writing LaTeX macros: I often called font packages that contained a bewildering variety of symbols and characters.

Many of these symbols possess a fascinating history. So too do many of the symbols we use in everyday life. This book contains a discussion of 100 symbols and characters, from the common to the arcane.


Zero — the humble 0 — is one of the most important mathematical symbols I discuss in Clash of Symbols. We take zero for granted, but the invention of this concept is one of the greatest breakthroughs in all of mathematics.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that nothing new could be learned about the history of zero. But in late 2017, after my book went to print, scientists carbon-dated an ancient Indian manuscript called the Bakhshali manuscript. The birch bark on which a long-forgotten author worked is now believed to date to the 3rd or 4th century. The Bakhshali author’s use of a symbol to represent zero means this is the earliest recorded example of the concept.

The use of a symbol for zero in the Bakhshali manuscript.

The use of a symbol for zero in the Bakhshali manuscript. (Credit: University of Oxford)