Nothing Matters: The True Power Of Zero

If you were asked to come up with a number, your mind would likely turn to a natural number such as 7, 59, or 1682. If you were feeling adventurous, perhaps you would name a negative number or even a fraction. Very few people, if any, would turn to the number 0.

Despite this, zero is one of the most important numbers within our number system. It took centuries for this digit to be considered a number in its own right, yet once it had been ‘discovered’ (whether numbers have been invented or discovered is a debate for another time!) it opened the door to a new realm of mathematical possibilities.

Let us dive into the history of the number 0 as I reveal why it is so crucial to modern mathematics.

The Origins of Zero

Originally, humans used number systems which did not need the number 0, so creating a specific ‘0’ would have been completely unnecessary. This, however, made it very difficult for people to differentiate between numbers such as 4 and 400. Which one was the intention would have to be determined by the context in which it was written.

Of course, this was not at all a sustainable method for writing numbers. In the third or fourth century, there was a breakthrough. A single dot on an ancient Indian mathematical manuscript is the first documented instance of the number 0. Compared to the other numbers, 0 arrived in mathematics very late. Many thinkers believe that this is because of a negative view held by society toward the concept of nothing.

For a long time, cultures upheld the Parmenidean approach to nothing: it is impossible for nothing to exist since to speak of something is to bring it into existence. The suppression of zero as a number continued in much of Europe through Christian leaders banishing the concept of ‘zero’ due to its supposed relation to evil and satanic forces.

It wasn't until the great mathematician Fibonacci that the decimal number system — containing a 0 — was spread across the western world. It did, however, take hold much faster in China and the Middle East, perhaps due to the proximity of these places to India where the system was first developed.

Why is Zero so Important?

The adoption of the concept of zero was arguably the first step toward advanced mathematics. Since scientists and mathematicians were now freed from tediously simply calculations, they could focus their energy on tackling more complex problems and trying to understand the properties of numbers themselves.

As a placeholder, 0 became one of the most important numbers in use since it allowed us to easily differentiate between values such as 24 and 20,004. This place-holding property of the number 0 is the reason why it is so central to the base-10 number system which much of the world has adopted.

Aside from this, the biggest benefit of having a number zero is our ability to quantify nothing. If no games are scored in a football match, for example, we need to be able to express this in a way which allows people to understand the absence of goals. Or if you managed to get every answer in a test wrong, then you need some sort of numerical value which represents this.

This representation of an absence of something is at the heart of the development of computer technology. In our digital world, zero plays a hugely important role in the functioning of circuits. At their most basic level, computer devices are made of circuits that are turned either ‘on’ or ‘off’. The ‘on’ state is represented by ‘1' which means that charge is flowing through that circuit component. The “off” state is represented by — you guessed it — ‘0’ which in this case denotes the absence of charge. Furthermore, the code written to control computers, when converted to machine code for our devices to understand, is composed entirely of 1s and 0s. It is impossible to imagine how computers could have been created without the concept of zero and the digit we use to represent it.

The massive need for a number zero is obvious to us in the modern world, yet somehow its fundamental nature managed to elude whole civilisations — even the Romans had no symbol for its value.

Join me in my next article to discover the different types of numbers. See you there!

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Erin McGurk

Erin McGurk

Hi, I’m Erin and I write about everything numbers and mathematics. Join me to discover the incredible world of the numbers that govern our world!