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  • Hiroko Aspi

The Greatest Mathematical Invention: Zero

In ancient times when there was no number, pre-historic people used fingers to count. Years later, people carved lines on wood, stones, and bones to count time and numbers of days for 40,000 years. Around 4000BC, tokens were used to count sheep. 500 years after that, the tokens were replaced by numerals carved in flat clay tablets. At about 3100BC, cities were formed and each of them had its own numeral system. The earliest recorded numerals

called cuneiform, a base 60 system. From there, the Egyptians developed a base 10 numeral system as multiples of 10 as early as 2300BC, the Mayans developed a base 20 number system around 1500BC and the Chinese used a base 10 system around 1400BC, which had different symbols for 1 to 9 and multiples of 10. Finally, Arab merchants brought the zero they found in India to the West. By the 1600s, zero had spread widely throughout Europe.

The first modern equivalent of numeral zero came from a Hindu astronomer Brahmagupta in 628. This single number has changed the way we perceive math. The earliest known concept of zero was that of a placeholder. The small act of the discovery of zero would later change the way civilizations developed. Without zero, we wouldn’t even have the numbers like the present-day ones. Working in base 10, ten different digits 0, ..., 9 are used and the position of a digit is used to signify the power of ten. Without the concept of zero, we would've had to learn 20 or even 60 pictographic symbols - a mind-boggling process far more exhausting than memorizing multiplication tables! Today, it’s difficult to imagine how you could have mathematics without zero and a positional number system we use. By adding zero to the positional number system, the true power of numbers was unleashed advancing mathematics.

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