Where zero came from

Mayans vs. Arabs

Oh, Great Enlightened One: Who, pray tell, invented the zero? I have heard, through the movie Stand and Deliver, that the Mayans invented it. Several engineers I work with claim that the zero is Arabic. Also, did Newton use the zero to formulate calculus? Since calculus was formulated after the discovery of the New World, I'm betting that Newton did have a zero and that he got it from the “explorers” of the New World.— Scott Olson, Ocean Beach

The explorers brought back corn and turkeys and gold and stuff like that, but no crates of Mayan zeros. Europeans already had their own. Zero as we know it today seems to have developed independently in at least two cultures. Our own personal North American zero is Arabic, because that is the number system Europe adopted sometime in the 10th Century A.D. But Arab merchants had borrowed that system from the Hindus, who had invented their own zero about 400 years after the Mayans. Ancient number systems (like Roman numerals) were not based on positional notation, where a numeral’s meaning depended on its location within a number. In some systems, it might have taken dozens of characters to distinguish between the numbers 11 and 101. In the Hindu-Arabic system, any number could be expressed with just nine numerals plus zero. It opened up the world of mathematical calculation, and, we can assume, the wonderful world of math-phobia.

Our words “cipher” and “zero” come from the Arabic sifr, the translation of the Hindu (Sanskrit) word sunya, “vacant,” remarkably enough, the very description of the look on the faces of at least half the world’s calculus students since its invention in the 17th Century. Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz share the blame.

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Oh, Great Enlightened One: Who, pray tell, invented the zero? I have heard, through the movie Stand and Deliver, that the Mayans invented it. Several engineers I work with claim that the zero is Arabic. Also, did Newton use the zero to formulate calculus? Since calculus was formulated after the discovery of the New World, I'm betting that Newton did have a zero and that he got it from the “explorers” of the New World.— Scott Olson, Ocean Beach

The explorers brought back corn and turkeys and gold and stuff like that, but no crates of Mayan zeros. Europeans already had their own. Zero as we know it today seems to have developed independently in at least two cultures. Our own personal North American zero is Arabic, because that is the number system Europe adopted sometime in the 10th Century A.D. But Arab merchants had borrowed that system from the Hindus, who had invented their own zero about 400 years after the Mayans. Ancient number systems (like Roman numerals) were not based on positional notation, where a numeral’s meaning depended on its location within a number. In some systems, it might have taken dozens of characters to distinguish between the numbers 11 and 101. In the Hindu-Arabic system, any number could be expressed with just nine numerals plus zero. It opened up the world of mathematical calculation, and, we can assume, the wonderful world of math-phobia.

Our words “cipher” and “zero” come from the Arabic sifr, the translation of the Hindu (Sanskrit) word sunya, “vacant,” remarkably enough, the very description of the look on the faces of at least half the world’s calculus students since its invention in the 17th Century. Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz share the blame.

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