Nothing to See Here, Folks

Image copyright Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Some pretty cool mathematical history made the news recently. Researchers at Oxford University investigated the Bakhshali manuscript, an ancient Indian text, and using carbon dating they apparently “pin[ned] the moment” of the “discovery of zero”.

Well, no. Dating one particular manuscript to “the 3rd or 4th century [AD]” is not pinpointing anything. And there are other issues.

The story is genuinely interesting, and much of the media reported the conclusions of the (not yet peer-reviewed) research accurately and engagingly. Others, however, muddled the story, particularly in the headlines. In order to clear things up, we can distinguish four related but distinct ideas to which “zero” might refer:

1)(a) The use of some symbol, say , as a placeholder in positional notation. We can then distinguish, for example, 43 and 43 (i.e. four hundred and three).

1)(b) The use of some symbol, say , to represent the number zero, for example in the equation 5 – 5 = .

2)(a) The use of something resembling the symbol 0 as a placeholder (as in 43 versus 403).

2)(b) The use of something resembling the symbol 0 to represent a number (as in 5 – 5 = 0).

All these ideas are of genuine interest, but 1(a) and, particularly, 1(b) much more so. Famously, from about 2000 BC Babylonian mathematicians employed a form of positional notation, using spacing when required to make the positions clear; so, it would be as if we used 43 and 4 3 to indicate forty-three and four hundred and three, respectively. From around 400 BC Babylonian mathematics began to employ a double-wedge symbol as a placeholder. That’s the earliest such occurrence of symbol for “zero”, in any sense, of which we are aware.

It took much longer for zero to be employed as a genuine number. The first known use was in 628 AD, in a text of the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta. He stated algebraic rules of the integers, though in words rather than symbols: a debt [negative] subtracted from zero is a fortune [positive], and so on. The symbolic arithmetic of zero may have followed soon after, though it is not clear (at least to me) even approximately when. By the end of the ninth century, however, the use of the symbol for the number 0 had appeared in both Indian and Arabic arithmetic.

The interest in the Bakhshali Manuscript is its use of (something resembling) the symbol 0: it is the filled-in dot on the bottom line in the photograph above. As for the Babylonians, this dot was employed as a placeholder rather than to represent a number. It had been thought that the Manuscript dated from the ninth century, and more recent than the (placeholder) 0 appearing on the walls of the famous Gwalia Temple, also from the ninth century. The recent carbon dating, however, determined that portions of the Manuscript, including pages that used the dot as a placeholder zero, were much older, dating to around 300 AD. That’s the big news that hit the headlines.

Now, none of that is as mathematically interesting as the still cloudy origins of the number zero. Combined with our knowledge of Brahmagupta, however, this new dating of the Bakhshali Manuscript suggests the possibility that the use of the number 0 in arithmetic occurred centuries earlier than previously suspected. So, not yet the magnificent historical revelation suggested by some newspaper reports, but still very cool.


Going off at a Tangent

So Plimpton 322, the inscrutable Babylonian superstar, has suddenly become scrutable. After a century of mathematics historians puzzling over 322’s strange list of Pythagorean triples, two UNSW mathematics have reportedly solved the mystery. Daniel Mansfield and Norman Wildberger have determined that this 3,800-ish year old clay tablet is most definitely a trigonometry table. Not only that, the media have reported that this amazing table is “more accurate than any today“, and “will make studying mathematics easier“.

Yeah, right.

Evelyn Lamb has provided a refreshingly sober view of all this drunken bravado. For a deeper history and consideration, read Eleanor Robson.

Babylonian mathematics is truly astonishing, containing some great insights. It would be no surprise if (but it is by no means guaranteed that) Plimpton 322 contains.great mathematics. What is definitely not great is to have a university media team encourage lazy journalists to overhype what is probably interesting research to the point of meaninglessness.