Zero

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)