How zero changed the world

Zero the hero: The number’s round shape represents the circle of life. © Oxford University

Has zero done more for humanity than any other invention? Scientists have discovered that the number zero, incredibly important to maths, was “invented” far earlier than we once thought.

What’s happening

Scientists have carbon dated an ancient Indian maths textbook, called the Bakhshali manuscript. On it is a small black dot. It is the oldest known zero sign in the world, dating from around the third or fourth century. Indians became the first people to treat zero as a number in its own right.

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The idea that a lack of something could be counted as a number was a huge step forward for maths. Think about it: without zero, how could you write the number 101?

It helped merchants to count what they bought and sold, and this meant they could make more money. It allowed scholars to invent algebra and calculus, which are incredibly important to physics, engineering and medicine.

Zero was used in the invention of the first computers. These used a “binary code” (the numbers 1 and 0) to show data, sounds and images. Almost all computing systems work this way, and all thanks to zero.

In fact, it is “widely seen as one of the greatest innovations in human history”, says the president of the Project Zero. Could it be the greatest of all?

Some say…

“No way!” say some. The greatest innovation in history was our ability to control fire. This helped people to cook food, stay warm, fight off danger, and become Earth’s most powerful and successful animal. Humanity survived for thousands of years without the number zero, but we could not have survived without heat.

Others think…

“But zero made things interesting!” say others. It advanced trade, medicine, technology and science: the things that make a modern civilisation. Without zero we would be stuck in ancient ways. We would have shorter lives, no money, few opportunities, and — perhaps worst of all — no internet to entertain us. We should celebrate zero more often.

You Decide

  1. Which would you rather live without: fire or the number zero?


  1. There are three classes with 27 students. Every day, nine students read an article on The Day Explorer. How many days will it be until zero students have NOT read an article?

Some People Say...

“Maths is by far the most important subject at school.”

What do you think?

Word Watch

Carbon dated
A way of finding out how old something is, if it is made from natural materials containing carbon.
A branch of maths in which numbers are replaced by letters to create formulae. This is useful in everything from accounting to architecture.
A branch of maths which studies how something changes over time. This can then be used to try to predict the future, and is useful in everything from driving to computing.
The branch of science and technology concerned with the design, building, and use of engines, machines, and structures.
New methods and ideas.
Modern civilisation
Current networks of people who are advanced, educated and productive.


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