Along with the chicken and the banana...
August 3, 2022 5:34 AM   Subscribe

The Elusive Origin of Zero Maybe a Southeast Asian civilization originated this numeral, instead of an Indian one? posted by cendawanita (26 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
On preview, I saw this article was already linked by kliuless just before me! But i beg indulgence because while that FPP is more about computing, I'm digging this for the Southeast Asian aspect, esp as a region whose classical period was very much seen as an Indic domain.
posted by cendawanita at 5:35 AM on August 3 [2 favorites]


Happy to see it (sorry to kliuless, I missed that).

I had thought zero was an Arabian invention, but I've NFI why I thought that.
posted by pompomtom at 6:25 AM on August 3 [3 favorites]


I had thought zero was an Arabian invention, but I've NFI why I thought that.

I remember being taught exactly this in high school (US/Utah region circa 1999), that “the Arabs invented the concept of zero”.
posted by Doleful Creature at 6:38 AM on August 3


Whoa, by 1999 is already quite outdated. During my schooling in the 80s, the story was the Arabs got the zero from India thru the Mughals, when al-Khawarizmi basically invented algebra when he needed a concept for the nothing. But even in modern Arabic there's no circle symbol for zero. It's still just a center-align dot.
posted by cendawanita at 7:03 AM on August 3 [2 favorites]


I'm a little confused what "zero" this article is talking about. The artifact here is a stone inscription dated to CE 685, which is indeed a little older than the Indian inscription from CE 876. Both interesting finds! But isn't the zero concept much older?

Wikipedia notes Egyptian accounting using a zero to 1770 BCE, some 2500 years older than this inscription. The Maya independently invented a zero with evidence dating back to 31 BCE.

Perhaps the claim to "first" is some detail of the particular meaning or representation of the zero? Zero itself is not some mystical idea; "I have no children" is a sentence every human in every culture would understand. The key here is really the positional numbering system, like our familiar base 10, where writing a number like 603 requires noting "3 ones, 0 tens, 6 hundreds". I think the Egyptian, Mayan, and Chinese uses had something of this nature but maybe there's some detail that differs? Wikipedia does note that in some of these systems there was no actual symbol for the zero, just a blank space, but IMHO that counts.

Not trying to diminish the accomplishments of different world civilizations; I think independent invention of major concepts is fascinating. It's exciting to learn there was this kind of numerical representation happening in Southeast Asia. Just trying to understand what "first" is being claimed in this article. It doesn't help the article leads with "For a country to be able to claim the number’s origin would provide a sense of ownership and determine a source of great nationalistic pride."

(The idea that "the Arabs invented zero" is probably a teenage memory of being taught the difference between Arabic positional numbering and Roman numerals. In the Western canon we look at Greece / Rome as the pinnacle of culture, but neither of those used positional numerals. Europeans were introduced to the idea thanks to Arab and Muslim mathematics. This kind of story telling is usually done in complete ignorance of any other world culture like India, Maya, China, or SE Asia and only grudging acceptance of Arab contributions.)
posted by Nelson at 7:06 AM on August 3 [8 favorites]


I was just reading this Smithsonian article from the guy who found the Cambodian evidence (before this Srivijaya one). Definitely the unspoken part is the connection, and if I remember correctly the excitement relates to what i mentioned when I said this region is often seen as an Indic region. More specifically it's seen as a vassal or client region geopolitically - you see it in our dissemination of religion as well as a significant number of our cultural arts; semi-relatedly there's this sense from Indian subcontinental writers that even our Hindu tradition is somewhat inauthentic (well, except for VS Naipaul apparently? Anyway the guy's got issues with Islam/Muslims so there's that). So to have some evidence that the cultural influence was never so unidirectional is the main implication imo.

So with that said, Dr Alex West disagrees (but fuller article is on his Patreon which i have no access), where he's arguing that geopolitical influence is still very much the case here where it may just be SE Asian elites accidentally preserving the symbol in earlier timestamped documents.
posted by cendawanita at 7:17 AM on August 3


I’m not sure that constructions like “I have no children” predate common usage of zero. You might instead say, “I do not have children.” For instance in Latin, “Non habeo liberos.”

There is even some residual absurdity to having none of something, as opposited to not having any of it. For instance the song, Yea We Have No Bananas.
posted by sjswitzer at 7:26 AM on August 3 [2 favorites]


for a fun (for kids!) book on early number systems, check out How to count like a Martian by Glory St. John :P
posted by kliuless at 7:42 AM on August 3 [1 favorite]


I’m not sure that constructions like “I have no children” predate common usage of zero. You might instead say, “I do not have children.” For instance in Latin, “Non habeo liberos.”

You can absolutely say "I have no children" in Latin: nūllōs līberōs habeō (or even better, nūllī sunt mihi līberī).

nūllus (< Eng. 'null') is from PIE *ne 'not' + *oinos 'one'. It's cognate with 'none'.
posted by lysimache at 8:21 AM on August 3 [2 favorites]


I have zero children.

QED.
posted by polymodus at 9:06 AM on August 3


Zero and None are different types in many computer languages.
posted by polymodus at 9:07 AM on August 3 [4 favorites]


My point with the "no children" example is that having nothing of something is not a complicated or mystical idea. So many articles writing about the numeric zero, including this one, veer into some idea that the very concept of nothingness was not contemplatable until someone chiseled a new symbol into a rock. That's just nuts. But the detailed notion of using positional numbers and having a way to indicate a zero as a mathematically manipulable quantity, that's a real invention, and from what I've read and cited above it's been invented at different times in three or more places.

Reading this Scientific American article a second time I'll agree with cendawanita's comment about cultural / political agendas. That quote about "great nationalistic pride" leaves an unpleasant taste in my mouth. But we absolutely should acknowledge the development of mathematical ideas in various parts of the world and it's really cool that this SE Asian artifact is an early use of a zero.
posted by Nelson at 9:13 AM on August 3 [3 favorites]


Whoa, by 1999 is already quite outdated. [the belief that Arabs invented zero]

Yeah…I’m not at all surprised my public education was outdated, considering Utah routinely ranks second-to-last* in public education funding.

And as Nelson mentioned, Very probably this “understanding” was a result of my teenage brain not paying very good attention to what my history teacher actually said.

The fine article and ensuing discussions here are fascinating and enlightening. Thanks for sharing!

*IIRC Arkansas is usually last place
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:32 AM on August 3 [1 favorite]


Zero is a complicated concept. There are actually a bunch of different kinds of zeros:

Cardinal Zero: You have no items

Ordinal Zero: The zeroth item, such as on a number line, -1, 0, 1, 2

Nominal Zero: A zero naming something, such as the zero on a roulette wheel identifying the place where the ball lands

Placeholder Zero: A zero that changes the value of items next to it, like 101 meaning there are no tens

Insignificant Zero: A zero that has no value but keeps the number having the same number of digits: $5.50

Cyclical Zero: A special ordinal zero, where the count starts again, such as 0 degrees on a compass

These are not the same, and many cultures had different symbols for the different kinds of zeros. The Babylonians had placeholder zero, but it could only be used inside a number, not at the end. 6 and 60 were written the same. The Egyptians had an ordinal zero. Roman numerals are not positional, so they had no placeholder zero, but they eventually added a cardinal zero using the word nulla.

The discussion about zero here is for a placeholder zero. The Maya (or possibly a nearby Mesoamerican culture) invented it first (but not before the imperfect Babylonian placeholder zero). When Fibonnaci introduced placeholder number into Europe in 1202 CE, he called them Arabic Numbers, but the Arabs called them Hindu Numbers.
posted by Xoc at 12:11 PM on August 3 [15 favorites]


The Babylonians had placeholder zero, but it could only be used inside a number, not at the end.

This is repeated all over, including by scholars, but it turns out not to be the case. See Georges Ifrah, The Universal History of Numbers, p. 153, citing tablets inspected by Oscar Neugebauer with zeroes clearly placed in final position. These would have been from the 200s BCE.
posted by zompist at 4:21 PM on August 3 [7 favorites]


^^^ I was going to check this comment against the best online reference source, Zompist's Numbers Page, and then I realized who wrote it.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 4:57 PM on August 3 [9 favorites]


That quote about "great nationalistic pride" leaves an unpleasant taste in my mouth

The darkly hilarious thing for me as a Malaysian is the agenda is being pushed by this specific Malaysian university dept, while Srivijaya is located in modern Indonesia, where the modern Indonesian identity narrative wouldn't at all describe this Hindu-Buddhist kingdom as 'Old Malay', in part because for them, Malay is just a sub-ethnic group predominant in the Riau Islands. Yes, this Riau group makes up the bulk of the native/indigenous groupings in Malaysia, but the idea that we're all 'Malays' is a racial sorting idea introduced by the British, and most ethnofascists here live in deep denial of this fact. So we're now at this point where our current PM wants to push ASEAN-wide ideas like adopting Malay as the regional official language, because he's from the faction that makes claims that it is the lingua franca, which is only possible by folding every other sister language in the language group including modern Indonesian. You can imagine how well they're taking it. We can't even have peace over the provenance of fried rice.

Then there's this confluence with Westerners who are the classical Orientalist type of Southeast Asianist, and it makes academic scholarship a trainwreck. The only relief is that we're not the only country of course doing this. The other layer of hilarity with this claim in particular is because it bumps directly against India's hindutvas who are themselves in a project of claiming everything as Indian (and specifically Hindu Indian, not Mughal, not Moorish, definitely not Muslim).

So it's worth knowing about these dynamics, just so we don't accidentally carry water for these folks. (and conversely I'm always on the lookout for coverage in other regions because this post-col neo-nationalism can't just be happening here)
posted by cendawanita at 8:11 PM on August 3 [9 favorites]


Et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum, ad astra, forever and ever,
With Zero, my hero! How wonderful you are.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 9:13 PM on August 3 [2 favorites]


This is repeated all over, including by scholars, but it turns out not to be the case. See Georges Ifrah, The Universal History of Numbers, p. 153, citing tablets inspected by Oscar Neugebauer with zeroes clearly placed in final position. These would have been from the 200s BCE.

Thanks for the reference. I'll look it up.
posted by Xoc at 11:50 PM on August 3


Thank you Harvey Kilobit! Came into the thread just for that. The song's been in my head now all day.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 3:25 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


@Xoc, thanks for the list of non mystical uses of zero.

Midnight is traditionally unsettling and thinking of it as cyclical zero is helpful. 00:00:00 has its own nick ‘allballs’ in the postgresql database which combats the unsettled feeling. Not like I run screaming, but midnight has always caused an existential hiccup whenever I do date related work. It is claimed by the minutes that follow but that always felt to me like a bandage of sorts that we live with.
posted by drowsy at 5:56 AM on August 4


One thing I found weird was how the article kept talking about the Srivijaya Empire as "barely known", but I guess the only reason most Singaporeans know about it is because it factors into the founding myths of Singapura. In any case, I guess they mean more precisely "barely known by Western ang moh scholars".
posted by destrius at 8:31 AM on August 4


destrius, and it would be extremely unsurprising for you to learn that across the strait, we didn't learn anything extensive about Sang Nila Utama (it's all about Parameswara bayyybeee, and even then just a quick gloss why he had to leave Singapore/Temasek in the first place). But yeah, where we're from, Srivijaya figures greatly in our founding myths.
posted by cendawanita at 8:43 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


Zero itself is not some mystical idea; "I have no children" is a sentence every human in every culture would understand.
Even putting aside the discussion about different kinds of zeros, the jump from "I have no children" to the number 0 isn't obvious to me. If your language has a way to say "I have 2 fewer children than you", does that mean that you have the concept of negative numbers? If you know how to say "a square with side length 2", do you have the concept of irrational numbers? I'm not a linguist or an anthropologist, but I feel like to say that a society has invented 0 you would want to show something like: their language has numbers, their language has a way to say 0, and they do the same things with 0 that they do with other numbers.
posted by jomato at 6:53 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


How many times has kliuless has been double posted? For that matter, can one find out which member here is the most frequently double posted and the next thereafter and so and so on? Can one find out this via Infodumpster perhaps? Asking for a lazy innumerate friend.
posted by y2karl at 9:11 AM on August 5


The way I think of zero is that it's the additive identity, the special number such that a + 0 = a.

Nothing is not a number; whereas what's sometimes taken for granted is that zero is a number.
posted by polymodus at 1:06 AM on August 7


« Older Atoms and Bits   |   This is Vin Scully, wishing you a very pleasant... Newer »


You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.