The Zero and US

Babylonians — oh yes! it’s the Iraqis again — developed a zero about 300 B.C. It was represented by two slanted wedges on their clay tablets and served as a place holder in the sexagesimal (base 60 unlike our current base 10) system they used. By the way, there is something to be said for base 60 because it is divisible by 2, 3, 4 and 5, so one can get halves, thirds, etc. without going to a second or more decimal places. Our base 10 system forces us into two decimal places for a quarter and an infinite number for a third, wasting computer time and leading to inaccuracies because of approximations that have to be fudged for such mundane computations as calculating interest in savings accounts.

Over time the zero seems to have traveled to India — perhaps elsewhere too but evidence for that has not been unearthed yet. A dot carved on the wall of the fifth-century A.D. Chaturbhuja Temple in Gwalior is the earliest evidence. The seventh century Indian Mathematician Brahmagupta expanded on the remarkable properties of zero: multiply anything by it and lo and behold, it, too, becomes nothing. Credit where it’s due … the Mayans in the Americas also developed a zero independently to ease calculations in their astronomical investigations.

Muslim mathematicians picked up on the usefulness of the zero and brought it back to Baghdad whence it spread throughout their civilization into Spain. Europeans preferred to stick to Roman numerals until the Italian mathematician, Fibonacci, reminded them of their idiocy in a textbook published in 1202 A.D. What we know now as Arabic numerals (incorporating zero) were eventually adopted.

Without a zero, differential equations would be impossible to solve and much of engineering would grind to a halt; negative and imaginary numbers would have no meaning; neither would the 0, 1 binary system, the mainstay of our computers. And you would not be reading this on yours.

Humans learning from each other to improve the lives of humankind — something we seem to forget as we reinforce prejudices based on fictitious or anecdotal data. Imagine if we could incorporate the Jain attitude to non-violence, the Buddhist aspiration to self-denial and improvement, the Christian belief in forgiveness, the Jewish focus on law, the Muslim prescription to mercy, the Confucian predilection for respect and harmony, Hindu philosophy, etc., etc. Unfortunately trust is absent … and, some might say, for good reason. Is that our challenge then — to replace mistrust with deserved trust? The alternative might literally be a zero future.

Arshad M. Khan is a retired professor. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Arshad M..

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  1. bozh said on October 20th, 2010 at 8:55am #

    However, for me, chaldea, egypt; ancient greece, rome had not been civilized. And that is most important to me.
    Of course, i do not devalue tools or mathematics, but do devalue mathematicians and toolmakers who do not ensure that innocent people be killed [now in afgh’n and then in akkad or chaldea].

    However, it is clear that these ‘scientists’ [now and then] knew that their inventions wld be used to hurt people.

    remember fermi, oppenheimer, drone inventor, teller? How much evil have they caused? tnx for ur Finger!

  2. Rehmat said on October 20th, 2010 at 2:41pm #

    On May 18, Iranians around the world celebrated Khayyam Day – honoring the great Persian philosopher, mathematician, astronomer and poet. Khayyam is credited for correcting the Iranian Calendar which was put into effect in 1079. However, Omar Khayyam, is more known in the West as a poet rather than for his scientific achievements – thanks to the English translation of his Rubayait by Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1883). Rev. Martin Luther Jr. quoted Khayyam’s poetry in one of his speech ‘Why I oppose Vietnam War’: “It’s time for all people of conscience to call upon America to come back home. Come home America. Omar Khayyam is right The moving fingers writes and having writ, moves on”. Have the Afro-American Pastor alive – he would have told the first Afro-American President to bring American soldiers back from Iraq and Afghanistan and stop his war cries against the Islamic Republic to plaese his Jew masters (AIPAC).

    Islamic Republic of Iran (Persia) is one of world’s oldest civilization. In the past, Persian Kings have ruled many parts of the Middle East, Indian sub-continent and Afghanistan. It were Persian scholars like Hakim Abol Ghasem Fardowsi Toosi (935-1020), Hakim Omar Khayyam Naishaboori (1048-1131), Shaikh Mosslehedin Saadi Sherazi (1184-1283), Mowlana Jalaledin Mohhamad Mowlavi Rumi (1207-1273) and Khajeh Shamsedin Mohamad Hafiz Shirazi (1320-1389) known as the Kings of Persian Poetry – who enriched not only the Islamic civilizations but also helped the West to come out of its Dark Age (between 800 CE upto Renaissance).

    Omar Khayyam is buried in Nishapur and his tomb is one of biggest tourist attractions in Islamic Republic.

    Kourosh Ziabari in Introducing the heritage of Khayyam, wrote:

    Tunisia has constructed a set of hotels named after Khayyam. One of the lunar craters has been named in honor of Omar Khayyam. The Omar Khayyam crater is located at 58.0N latitude and 102.1W longitude on the surface of moon. The Outer Main-belt Asteroid 1980 RT2 is also named in honor of Omar Khayyam. The Argentine Marxist revolutionary and guerrilla leader named his son in honor of Khayyam and his work. Omar Pérez López is a Cuban writer and poet.

    The late American novelist Kurt Vonnegut refers to Khayyam’s “moving finger writes” quatrain in his novel “Breakfast of Champions” when the protagonist Dwayne Hoover reveals that he had been forced to memorize it in high school.

    Anyway, Khayyam has been given so much international attention that even the primary school students in the United States know him well. He is only one out of hundreds of figures who constructed the pedestals of Persian civilization. He was a pioneer in science and literature and now reminds the world the matchless and unparalleled civilization of Iranian people; the people whom the U.S. President threatens with a nuclear strike on the roofs of their homes.

  3. shabnam said on October 20th, 2010 at 7:17pm #

    House of Latin America (HOLA), an Iranian NGO in Iran, dedicated to solidarity and defense of the peoples of Latin America and the people of Iran, has initiated the following appeal to individuals and organizations world-wide to join with them in a campaign of solidarity with Iran, in light of U.S. escalating threats and continuing sanctions.

    American Iranian Friendship Committee (AIFC), working closely with HOLA, calls on social justice organizations and individuals to join with them to support and strengthen this campaign. Hola’s Full Statement: (website, under construction, is

    The people of the world cannot allow such a crime against humanity.

    Therefore, I (We) join with all who stand for justice, peace, sovereignty and self determination in raising my (our) voice to demand:

    – Lift economic sanctions against Iran.
    – Recognize the right of Iran to develop and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
    – Stop military threats against Iran.

    We urge all organizations to place this Statement and Link on their websites:

  4. kalidas said on October 20th, 2010 at 8:27pm #

    Here we go again…
    Aryabhatta and Budhayana walked into a bar…