The Genesis of Nothing: Creating Zero

From the first computers to blood pressure monitors, onwards to the very phones in your hands, humanity holds profound debt to Aryabhatta.

1,500 years ago, unknown to the Western world, Aryabhatta hailed from the capital of India’s famed Mauryan empire, Pataliputra. Adjacent to modern-day Patna in north India, Pataliputra was an ancient city blustering with young astronomers, mathematicians, and physicists, each a virtuoso of their discipline.

The great Aryabhatta was the first of many Indian mathematician-astronomers, who would go on to revolutionize the course of human knowledge. It is believed that he completed his studies in Kusumapura, where he was also the head of school. Around 500 CE, Aryabhatta attended Nalanda University, where he worked on his magnum opera, Arya-siddhanta and Āryabhaṭīya. Interestingly, despite Aryabhatta’s age being twelve times that of modern physics, he is an accredited physicist. This is because other sections of his work explicitly mention general relativity- long before Einstein’s theory.

Āryabhaṭīya is a Sanskrit astronomical treatise, and Aryabhatta’s only surviving work after the Nalanda library was burned to ashes by Bakhityar Khilji in the 12th century. The document contains proof of the inception of ‘shunyata (śūnya)’.  Shunyata is termed as the concept of zero in Hindi- directly translating to ‘emptiness’. It is the conceptualization of nothingness, and shunya means null or void, thus ‘shunya’ is zero.

However, Aryabhatta only used zero in the place-value system, using the word ‘kha’ for positional purposes. About a century later, another Indian mathematician from Bhinmal would use zero in mathematical operations of addition and subtraction. (To contemporary readers elementary maths is child’s play, however, back in 600 CE, discovering it was the equivalent of squeezing water from stone.) Brahmagupta’s work on the usage of numeral zero and negative numbers in calculations allowed Arybhatta’s concept of zero to gain momentum. 

This mathematical uproar soon found itself flowing through the deserts of Arabia, into the Persian House of Wisdom. The pivotal conduit laid the groundwork for Al-Kharizmi’s Arabic numeric system. Later, his seminal work was transmitted into Latin by European mathematicians, titled ‘Algoritmo de Numero Indorum’. 

Aryabhatta’s contribution to science as a whole is indisputably of paramount significance, and not singularly limited to the inception of zero. Perhaps without him Newton’s calculus and Faraday’s understanding of electromagnetics would cease to exist.

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Authored by Mihika Singhania

Billabong High International School; Kanpur, India.