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British writer Alex Bellos has written a fascinating piece for the Guardian (“Nirvana by Numbers“) which explores the possible mystical origins of one of the most important ‘inventions’ in mathematics: the number zero:

India was not the only civilization to have a place value number system. Babylon and China did too. But India revolutionized numbers by adding the second piece of the jigsaw: the number zero.

Place value systems require a strategy to describe the case when there is nothing in a position. The Babylonians used a marker to represent nothing; the Chinese used a space to represent nothing.

Only the Indians introduced a symbol, 0, and treated it as if it was a normal digit just like all the others from 1 to 9. Invention of the number zero was possibly the greatest conceptual leap in the history of mathematics.

But why did the Indians make this leap and not China or Babylon? My trip to India, for a BBC radio documentary, was to investigate why this was the case.

India made another contribution to world culture as well as zero: the idea of nirvana, the transcendent state of “nothingness”, when you are liberated from suffering and desires. In fact, the word used in philosophical texts to mean nothing, or the void, is “shunya”, the same word later used to mean zero.

For George Gheverghese Joseph, a maths historian at the University of Manchester, the invention of zero happened when an unknown Indian mathematician about two thousand years realized that “this philosophical and cultural concept would also be useful in a mathematical sense.”

Renu Jain, professor of mathematics at Jiwaji University in Gwalior, was my guide at the temple. She agreed that Indian ideas of spiritual nothingness led to mathematical zero. “Zero denotes nothing. But in India it was derived from the concept of shunya. Shunya means a sort of salvation,” she said. “When all our desires are nullified, then we go to nirvana or shunya or total salvation.”

In the modern world it is common to see religion and science as always in conflict. Yet in ancient India, one cannot untangle mathematics and mysticism.

You can listen to Alex Bellos’ full 28 minute radio documentary on the topic at the BBC website.

Full Article: Nirvana By The Numbers