Zero… A number

Brahmagupta, an Indian mathematician and astronomer. Image: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Brahmagupta, an Indian mathematician and astronomer. Image: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Think about our number system: now start counting out loud to five: 1…2…3…4…5. What happened to Zero? Most people do not think about using zero when they count. However, it is a very important and “worth-nothing” component of our number system. Without zero, we would not have placeholders and even doing simple math would be very difficult. Some may argue that the Babylonians were the first to utilize zero; but in fact, it was actually the Indians who initially made zero a number.

What the Babylonian and Indian number systems had in common was their use of “place values”. For example, this means the number 44 is broken down in the following way: the first four represents 40, while the second four represents the actual value of four. This is a concept that we still use in our in our number system today. Let’s think about the number 301. The three represents 300, the zero represents “nothing” in the ten’s place, and the one represents the actual value of one. Now imagine a mathematical world without zero. How would you explain 301?   The Babylonian’s created a symbol or marker to represent nothing in order to solve this “place holder” problem. That kind of sounds like the number zero right? Then what makes the Indian’s system so special as to deserve historical credit for number creation?

There are two different reasons why Indians deserves all the credit for our number system. First, they were the initial culture to represent zero as a circle, “0”, which is what we still use today. Second, zero was regarded as just another digit like 1 to 9; it was a number and not just seen a placeholder anymore. Brahmagupta an Indian mathematician and astronomer, developed the first set of rules regarding how zero would work as a number.

They are the following:

  • When zero is added or subtracted from a number, it remains the same.

Example: 4+0=4 and 4-0=4

  • When a number is multiplied by zero, it is zero.

Example: 5 x 0=0

Brahmagupta came up with these rules in the 7th century, and we are still using the exact same rules today in the 21st century.

However, when it comes to division, Brahmagupta did make a mistake. He said that any number divided by zero equals zero. We all know what is wrong with that statement; any number divided by zero is not zero. It wasn’t until the 12th century when another Indian mathematician, Bhaskara, proved that a fixed number divided zero was in fact infinity  and not zero. Once again, a very basic rule that we still use today, any fixed number that is divided by zero is infinity, came from an India.

I find it very interesting that our number system, as well as a lot of our basic mathematical skills, comes from India, and yet we are never taught this school. Our education system is very Eurocentric, meaning it is based on European principles that are centered on their history and their culture. After finding out how much India contributed to our current mathematics’ structure, I believe it is important for students today to learn about our system’s correct history and origin, as well.

As a future educator going into mathematics, I am going to teach my students where the math they are doing comes from. I encourage current and future educators to do the same thing so as to correctly teach students and future generations how greatly India has contributed to our mathematics system.

Works Cited

Bellos, Alex. “Nirvana by Numbers.” Guardian News and Media, 07 Oct. 2013. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

“Brahmagupta – Indian Mathematics – The Story of Mathematics.” Brahmagupta – Indian Mathematics – The Story of Mathematics. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

Karmakar,Purnendu. “Brahmagupta.” Wikimedia Commons. JPG file.


3 thoughts on “Zero… A number

  1. rebin2

    I like your post, and I think I will translate it to kurdish and put it in my post ( with your permission ). by the way I still give credit of inventing zero to Babylonian ( maybe because I am biased since I am Iraqi). thanks for you nice blog!


  2. A Stewart

    Zero is to nonzero as matter is to space. Without space the matter collapses into one. A number divided by zero in my opinion should be one. Consider any number. We’ll say represents an amount or value that is described by 36 individual units. Divided by six. Would be six equal amounts. 6 divisions. Divide it by 0 and you have no divisions. But there is still a something. A single amount or new unit that is equal to 36 previously defined units. Great article!



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