Nothing Matters or Zero is my Hero
I often joke about how the most important inventions to civilization (civilization I define as culture, not just survival) are fire, you need it to cook, drive off enemies, harden spear tips etc. Second is agriculture; it provides for a permanent settlement and the division of labor. Now instead of each person trying to gather enough to survive, now a basket maker can trade for grain, meat and protection from the farmer and warrior. Agriculture also refined the concept of an economy, and from that you need math. The third is printing, a method to pass down this information, and ideas. No longer would one have to apprentice himself to a master craftsman, but could read about how to do something. This also allowed for philosophy and ideas that had little in the way of actual hands on; it allowed for things that couldn’t be touched like codifying religion and laws, and it allowed for the invention of the periodic table, fourth on my list.
But it’s this concept of math that I’m going to talk about. A great friend and mentor of mine says when he gets to the final reward in Heaven, he will be on the front row asking “How does math work anyway?” It goes with an old joke, physicists only defer to mathematicians, and mathematicians only defer to God. Since I am a biochemist, math is a tool to me; biochemists count as our earliest ancestors did: one, (monomer), two (dimer), and many (polymer). But as an Indian comic Russell Peters jokes: “1,2,3…none of these is what I want to pay!” He says his people’s culture and cheapness invented nothing, or zero, and he might be right!
In Western civilization, Greece and Rome became the inspiration for our culture. These two civilizations were the only ones allowed to be studies by the early Christian Church, and the Renaissance, or rebirth, was the intense study of just that. But it took some very special explorers that were businessmen, missionaries, diplomats and just plain brave folk to open up trade with Asia (think Marco Polo types). Due to this trade, Arabic-Indian numerals were brought to the West during the middle ages. This was good because Roman numerals were difficult to use, especially when you got into large numbers. And the Romans didn’t have a concept of an empty basket. There was no number for that, as evidenced by our time line, going from 1 BCE and jumping to 1 CE. There was no year zero; in fact there was no number zero.
The Babylonians with their cuneiform writing had the first known use of zero. It became a place holder to denote the differences of 1 to 10 to 100. It made the Roman numerals more useful, allowing you to write 101 instead of 100 and 1. However you needed to know the context the numbers were being used for or you might think it was ten and one, or eleven. (Our politicians have the same argument of context today; a billion dollars here, a billion dollars there, pretty soon we’re talking real money!) In this case the zero was kind of like a comma, it was merely a place holder, and it wasn’t a real number yet. This placeholder was also invented completely separate by the Mayans in the new world.
Now in spite of our comic, there is real argument whether the number zero (the concept of an empty basket or nothing in your checking account) came either from Babylon or India. We took our current numbers from Babylon, so we have a bit of prejudice in thinking zero came over from there. But the Indian concept is a little more fun to look at. Much of Indian science was written down, but also memorized in the form of a poem or song. We do the same with Primary songs, hymns and carols to illustrate simple religious concepts. The Indians had several different concepts of zero. The Void, the Sky, the atmosphere all were things not tangible, and had a value of zero each, but each was a different zero. The chant viya dambar akasasa sunya yama rama veda is a number as well as a chant. Viya is the sky, dambar is atmospere, adasasa is empty space, aksasa is the Viod .The Primordial Couple (yama) was two, rama was three and veda was four. So this chant was a number, and you read it last to first, or if you will right to left, so the numbers 0,0,0,0,2,3,4 was the number 4,320,000. Finally we have zero as a concept of nothing like the void, and as a placeholder too.
The unfortunate use of this number however is where politicians keep adding zeros to the end of all numbers, especially bills.