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The Number Zero

Published: 2016.05.20 - 15:32:31   /  /  Translated by Luis E. Amador Dominguez

The Number ZeroFor a long time, Roman numerals as well as those of Greek and Jewish, were not the right one to perform mathematical operations because it lacked an essential number for us: the zero ... So how did they carry out operations for adding, subtracting and dividing in those days? Well luckily for humans, around 500 B.C., there was the Roman abacus, whose Chinese analogue was known since time immemorial.

The abacus was a series of rows of beads that represent units, tens, hundreds, and so on. Possibly the abacus suggested to ancient mathematicians the idea of a positional numerical notation, which is what we use today. So when you wanted the abacus to dial a number, for example, 603, you had to move 6 beads in the row of the hundreds and 3 in that of the units.

However, when writing that figure a minor inconvenience arose; there was no numerical mark to signify that in a row of ten no bead had been moved. It was practically impossible to distinguish between 63, 603 and 630. This situation remained so almost a millennium until a Hindu mathematician came up with the brilliant idea that he could use a special symbol to represent the line untouched.

Thus the zero was born, and in the algebra of India it appears as a numerical figure and symbol. The zero changes everything. Since its appearance, the zero, which was discovered in India, revolutionized mathematics, as it allowed to write what it was impossible in the historic abacus.

The zero, although it seems insignificant because its apparent value is null, when it is on the right of a figure, it increases by 10, 100, 1000, and its face value infinitely.

By contrast, if its notation is made on the left of a given number, it subtracts its value to the extent that zeros are written. Hence the popular offensive expression: It is a zero on the left!

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