The Invention of ‘Nothing’ and Everything

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“We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made”

Albert Einstein

Mathematics plays a significant role in the modern world. This era of rapid development is indebted to the astounding achievements of Mathematics. From an Academician to grocer, everyone needs math like a common language to communicate.  Unlike science, Mathematics has the largest history of more than 5000 years, which was first developed in isolation in the beginning of different cultures. The Babylonians possessed the knowledge of division and multiplication, and were also well-versed in finding areas of certain geometrical figures. Greek philosopher ‘Aristotle’ says Mathematics was born in Egypt. Looking at the majestic Pyramids we can easily guess their mastery in Math. The Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Indus valley civilization had agricultural economy. So, they had a dependable calendar, precise with respect to both astronomy and arithmetic. In Indian sub-continent, Mathematics flourished under the banner of Hindu astronomy, around 300 B.C.

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Calculus, Algebra, Geometry were all said to be an Indian contribution. Ancient Indian mathematicians like Aryabatta worshiped Mathematics. A number of mathematical rules were given up by Aryabatta, although there was no mention of the ways by which rules were obtained or about the proofs. The ancient mathematicians of India never cared about the tradition of educating masses through proper writings. So, many of those oldest techniques were not preserved. Calculus was said to be picked by the Jesuit priests from Kerala in the second half of the 16th century. Over the years, the Europeans began to claim that calculus was their own invention. But there was still a most important Indian contribution to Mathematics, which revolutionized the world. It was the invention of Zero.

The whole development of Mathematics was based on the development of the place value system – the system of expressing all numbers with just ten symbols (nine numerals and Zero). Around the first to three centuries A.D., the Indians had a numeral system in which one of the ten symbols used as a fully functional zero. It was called ‘Sunya.’ The word’s literal meaning is ‘void.’ Although, Babylonians of 3rd century B.C. used a special symbol for indicating zero, they used it only as a place holder. They didn’t have any idea about the concept of zero.

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The base ten system of calculation is used to represent numbers ranging from the miniscule decimal to the inconceivable large power of ten. The Ancient Greeks’ largest unit of enumeration was only 10,000. The Yajurveda, one of the old vedic texts – predating the Greek mathematicians by at least a millennium – lists names for each of the units of ten up to ten to the twelfth power (called as ‘paraardha’). Later, the Jain and Buddhist Mathematicians of India extended this lists as high as the fifty-third power – proved their superiority over the Greek contemporaries, who without a proper system of enumeration lacked the abstract concept of Mathematics.

In Ancient times, It was hard to distinguish between, say, 36, 306, 360, 3006, because the later three were all written 3 6, with a space in-between. The ‘Roman numeral system’ had no expressions for zero. Before this great invention of zero, calculation remained as an art, only for highly skilled professionals. The Indian numeral system and its system of enumeration came to attention of Arabs around 7th or 8th century A.D. It functioned as the basis for the well known advancement in Arab Mathematics. One of the important people of Arab Math is al-Khwarizmi. He recorded all these, which were later translated to European languages in 12th century. The Europeans remained resistant to these findings and they adverted to the less logical Roman numeral system. Europeans’ eventual adoption of this old Indian system led to the revolution – in both mathematics and scientific fields – which changed the face of Earth, from the 13th century onwards.

Indians’ invention of a numeral with no value is not a simplistic one. It is one of the most significant contributions to world civilization.

 

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