Yes, I know title sounds like a cheap paperback you’d read in the flight but it’s neither a frivolous nor a fiction. Zero played a crucial role in development of algebra, Cartesian co ordinate system and Calculus. In turn it is a very building block of physics, chemistry engineering and of course computer science. In this speech I will talk about what is zero, where it came from and why it terrorized the western world before it was accepted as a number.
So what is Zero?
Zero is a symbol of something that does not exist. And that’s how it is represented in a circular symbol. It is the indentation that was left behind when the pebble was removed from the send in old calculation system. It represents the void or vacuum. We do not realize but we use zero in two totally different ways, namely as a quantity and as a place holder. First use is all too easy, zero as a numerical representation of nothing. However, the second one is more symbolic than numeric. In the number 205, zero acts as a placeholder signifying that number 2 is in the hundreds place and there is no tens. It shows that 205 and 25 are two different numbers.
Now second question where zero came from?
Records show that by the second millennium BCE, Babylonians and Mayans had a symbol for a place holder in their place value based number system. However, neither of them used zero as a number. India was the first to use zero as a cardinal number. Indian Mathematicians Brhmagupta and Bhaskera developed rules for the use of zero in basic arithmetic by 800 CE. India introduced zero to the Arabs who shaped the modern day numerals and passed them, along with zero, to the Europeans in the 12th century. But, it was not until about 15th century that zero was accepted as the number in the western world Mathematics.
Now the third question, why Greeks or western world was so reluctant to accept zero?
There are two reasons behind it. First: roman and Greek numerical systems were not place value based so they had no use of zero as a place holder. The second reason is much more subtle than mere necessity issues. The use of zero as a number challenged western philosophy and religion. While Hindu philosophy had embraced the void, Aristotle--and consequently the church--had rejected it as Aristotle explained "Nature abhors a vacuum". Also acceptance of zero leads to its twin infinity. Now infinity has no place in the finite, revolving around the earth universe. Eventually Copernicus' heliocentric model of the solar system cracked open the nutshell universe of Aristotle and Ptolemy. Earth was no longer comfortably enclosed in the center of the universe and there was no shell covering cosmos. Universe went into infinity. Gradual acceptances of infinity lead to acceptance of void too. It would not be an exaggeration if I say mere discovery of zero as a number pulled western world into religious and philosophical whirlpool and finally lead to Renaissance.
So 1400 years after the discovery of zero can we say that now zero is completely conquered? No my dear friends, even today, zero continues to hold the terror for humankind. Not too long ago, the guided missile cruiser USS Yorktown was brought to a grinding halt because of a “divide by zero” error in its control software. And why Black hole scares us, it does not make sense to us because there are zeros in black hole defining equations. These zeros ultimately lead to singularity or zero volume. You can see that the fact that there is a mass but no volume to contain that mass is not easy to comprehend. Why is that? Because zero has no finite scope, it is almost like an amphibian between being and non-being.