Top 10 Greatest Moments in Math History: The Concept of 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]. And the Maya had zero long before this.

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 Maya were doing the same thing in Central America. Was it a great coincidence that two independent cultures, separated by thousands of miles of open ocean, both came to discover zero? 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 zero dates back to the first few hundred years after Year 0 [1], long before Fibonacci took zero to the Europeans.

For a great book about zero, Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife is easily one of my top 5 books of all time.

Works Cited:

[1] Matson, John, “The Origin of Zero”, Scientific American, August 21, 2009

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

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


  1. intersting i didnt know but now i do thanks

  2. AnonymousJune 29, 2023

    Thank you very much that is the origin of zero, i understand

  3. I'm fairly certain there's no Year 0 in our current dating system. 1 CE is preceded by 1 BCE.