Much ado about zero.

I ran across a couple of interesting posts this week. In the first, science writer Amir Aczel reported on “How I Rediscovered the Oldest Zero in History.”

Inscription K-127, from Sambor on Mekong. Photo Credit: Debra Gross Aczel. The zero is a dot near dead center in the picture, to the right of a figure that looks like a spiral. Click to enlarge the picture.People who aren’t math geeks might marvel that there was ever a time when the world had no zeros, but it’s true. There’s more than one way to count and do math, and not all of them include what used to be called a “nought.” For reasons I won’t try to explain, zeroes are important, and they make approaches such as our familiar Base 10 numbering system work.

Aczel’s claim to have “rediscovered the oldest zero in history,” posted in the blogs section of the popular discovermagazine.com website, reported on a Sloan Foundation funded research trip he made to Cambodia, where he managed to locate a 7th century stone inscription that had been discovered and described in the 1930s. The inscription had dropped from sight during the Khmer Rouge regime’s reign of terror and mismanagement, which included the looting of countless ancient artifacts. It was feared lost.

But, in a cache of inscriptions kept at a location Aczel does not disclose — other than to note it was near the famous Angkor Wat temple near Siem Reap — Aczel managed to identify the lost inscription, on which a zero appears as a dot between Old Khmer symbols indicating a six and a five, making the number 605 in a dating system that began in 78 CE, rendering a date of 683 CE.

Aczel’s self-congratulatory article was quickly blasted by a number of math historians, who pointed out that he completely ignored the Maya numbering system, which had a zero in its Base 20 numbering system, with evidence stretching as far back as 37 BCE.

And, they said, he too-quickly dismissed the Babylonians’ Base 60 system, which used a type of zero much earlier, though in a more nuanced way.

Wayne State University anthropologist Stephen Crisomalis was not content to post a comment, using his blog to critique Aczel’s claims while contratulating him on tracking down the lost inscription and drawing it to the attention of Cambodian authorities, who plan to exhibit it in the Cambodian National Museum in Phnom Penh.

Aczel would have been more accurate in using the headline “How I rediscovered the oldest stone inscription of a zero from the Indian tradition.” That’s still significant, because the Southeast Asian numbering system was apparently adopted by Arab traders and became the foundation of what we know as “Arabic” numerals, the system on which most of the world operates today.

Who would have thought such excitement could be raised over zero?

But then again, neither of the posts could have seen the light of day without the aid of computers, whose code is based on just two digits – ones and zeroes.

So, if you’ve ever had one of those days when you felt like a zero, just remember how incredibly important you are.

1 Comment

  1. Zero has a fascinating history and has demonstrated power at various times. If you'd like to investigate further I'd suggest Charles Seife's book from 2000, Zero, the Biography of a Dangerous Idea. Who'da thunk it?!

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