Top 10 Greatest Moments in Math History: Zero!

Top 10 Greatest Moments in Math History

Moment 1: Zero!
It’s strange to think that people actually did math without a way to represent zero, but it wasn’t until 1200, when Fibonacci brought 0 to the Western World from Northern Africa, that zero’s use was finally accepted worldwide [1].

Before it was a standalone number, zero was used just as a placeholder to show a difference between “53” and “503”, for example. The placeholder originated in ancient Babylonia (modern day Iraq), from where many great mathematical discoveries came, 400 years before Year 0. To show the difference between “53” and “503” before having 0, people would merely space their symbols. But still, there was no independent symbol to represent the idea of “nothing” [1].


By the 400s in India, zero became its own number, representing “nothing” and symbolized by a dot [2, page 76], but people were a bit hesitant to accept it at first [1]. Even scholars weren’t sure what to do with their new number [3, page 34]. Eventually though, as with many inventions in math and science, word of zero traveled- albeit not as fast back then as it would today, but still efficiently enough to spread throughout the world- from India to Northern Africa and eventually to Fibonacci who brought it with him to Europe [1].


As ancient Egyptians were constructing their great pyramids in Egypt, the Mayans were doing the same thing in Central America. Were people traveling in boats? How did word spread? Did word actually spread or was it just some great coincidence that two independent cultures, separated by thousands of miles of open ocean, created the very same thing? No one really knows. 


 What we do know is that, before it is widely believed Europeans ever made it to the Americas, another coincidence occurred between Africa and Central America with the independent Mayan invention of zero. The Mayan’s zero dates back to the first few hundred years after Year 0 [1], long before Fibonacci took zero to the Europeans who would later go on to invade the Americas.


Top 10 Greatest Moments in Math History

Works Cited:

[1] Matson, John, “The Origin of Zero”, Scientific American, August 21, 2009 http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=history-of-zero

[2] Pickover, Clifford A., The Math Book, Sterling Publishing, New York, 2009

[3] Weidenfeld & Nicolson, The Science Book, London, United Kingdom, 2003

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