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What is the origin of zero? How did we indicate nothingness before zero?

Robert Kaplan, author of The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero and former professor of mathematics at Harvard University, provides this answer:

The first evidence we have of zero is from the Sumerian culture in Mesopotamia, some 5,000 years ago. There, a slanted double wedge was inserted between cuneiform symbols for numbers, written positionally, to indicate the absence of a number in a place (as we would write 102, the '0' indicating no digit in the tens column).

zero timeline
Image: KRISTEN MCQUILLIN
TIMELINE shows the development of zero throughout the world. The first recorded zero appeared in Mesopotamia around 3 B.C. The Mayans invented it independently circa 4 A.D. It was later devised in India in the mid-fifth century, spread to Cambodia near the end of the seventh century, and into China and the Islamic countries at the end of the eighth. Zero reached western Europe in the 12th century.

Writing Numbers

The Babylonians displayed zero with two angled wedges

The Babylonians displayed zero with two angled wedges (middle).

The Mayans used an eyelike character to denote zero

The Mayans used an eyelike character [top left] to denote zero.

The Chinese started writing the open circle we now use for zero

The Chinese started writing the open circle we now use for zero.

The Hindus depicted zero as a dot

The Hindus depicted zero as a dot.

The symbol changed over time as positional notation (for which zero was crucial), made its way to the Babylonian empire and from there to India, via the Greeks (in whose own culture zero made a late and only occasional appearance; the Romans had no trace of it at all). Arab merchants brought the zero they found in India to the West. After many adventures and much opposition, the symbol we use was accepted and the concept flourished, as zero took on much more than a positional meaning. Since then, it has played avital role in mathematizing the world.

The mathematical zero and the philosophical notion of nothingness are related but are not the same. Nothingness plays a central role very early on in Indian thought (there called sunya), and we find speculation in virtually all cosmogonical myths about what must have preceded the world's creation. So in the Bible's book of Genesis (1:2): "And the earth was without form, and void."

But our inability to conceive of such a void is well captured in the book of Job, who cannot reply when God asks him (Job 38:4): "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding." Our own era's physical theories about the big bang cannot quite reach back to an ultimate beginning from nothing--although in mathematics we can generate all numbers from the empty set. Nothingness as the state out of which alone we can freely make our own natures lies at the heart of existentialism, which flourished in the mid-20th century.

Answer originally posted Feb. 28, 2000.

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