Z is for Zero

Helping to working on my daughter’s homework, I get to rediscover centimeters to meters (100), milliliters to liters (1,000), and grams to kilograms (1,000).

Zero has fascinated me for-practically-ever. I saw this article in BoingBoing, which led to this piece in the Guardian:

“Only [India] introduced a symbol, 0, and treated it as if it was a normal digit just like all the others from 1 to 9. The 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? …

“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.” …

“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.”

I read Thinking in Numbers, On Life, Love, Meaning, and Math by Daniel Tammet this autumn. He wrote about Shakespeare’s Zero, how the Bard wrote a lot about nothingness and was “one of the first generations of English schoolboys to learn about the figure zero.”

For zero means nothing, but, combined with other numbers, can represent an incredible size, e.g., a one, followed by a zero (10), or two zeroes (100), or many more. Helping to work on my daughter’s homework, I get to rediscover the relationship of centimeters to meters (100), milliliters to liters (1,000), and grams to kilograms (1,000).

Of course, we often make a big deal about a birthday or anniversary when it contains a zero in the one’s place, and more so when it’s in both the ones and tens place. Read the Wikipedia piece about zero.
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