How Zero Was Invented

Mathematician Dr. Hannah Fry tells the story of zero, a genius idea that transformed human progress.

There are some parts of our knowledge base that we generally take for granted. We use them every day, and they have been very successful in allowing us to conduct our lives. The number system that includes zero is one such practice.  But zero didn’t always exist. It’s a rather genius idea that humanity had to invent after it already knew how to count.


There are two ways that zeroes work. Zero is a placeholder, signifying the absence of value. Zero is also a number in its own right.  

Ancient Sumerian scribes used spaces to mark absences, while Babylonians used a sign of two small wedges to differentiate between magnitudes (like our decimal-based system employs zeroes to make a difference between tenths, hundreds and so on). Mayans also had a similar type of marker in their calendars.

Watch this brief history of zero narrated by the mathematician Dr. Hannah Fry for the Royal Institute.  

But in the fifth century, India’s number system was the first to utilize the concept of zero as a number. There is a circle that resembles a zero on the wall of a temple in Gwalior, India which is considered to be the world’s oldest representation of the number. In the 7th century, the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta used small dots to show the zero placeholder, but also recognized it as a number, with a null value that was called “sunya”.

India’s math spread to China and the Middle East cultures, where it was instrumental and developed further. The mathematician Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khowarizmi utilized zero in algebraic equations and eventually, by about 9th century, zero became part of the Arabic number system looking like the oval we write today.  In Europe, however, Romans opposed zero due to the preference given to their own system based on Roman numerals.  Zero was embraced gradually by Europeans, most famously championed by the Italian mathematician Fibonacci.  

As math evolved, zero formed the cornerstone of calculus.  Now it lies in the foundation of modern computing’s binary system of zeros and ones.

Of course, as much as zero has been useful, it carries within itself certain philosophical quandaries. While other numbers can be utilized to refer to existing objects, what object or anything in existence can zero point to? If “nothing” is part of our number system, then does the system itself come into question as a constructed, but not necessarily empirically-derived practice? While other numbers allow for division, you can’t divide by zero. Comedian Steven Wright famously quipped: “Black holes are where God divided by zero.” So can you really have something out of nothing?

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
Keep reading Show less

Meet the Bajau sea nomads — they can reportedly hold their breath for 13 minutes

The Bajau people's nomadic lifestyle has given them remarkable adaptions, enabling them to stay underwater for unbelievable periods of time. Their lifestyle, however, is quickly disappearing.

Wikimedia Commons
Culture & Religion
  • The Bajau people travel in small flotillas throughout the Phillipines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, hunting fish underwater for food.
  • Over the years, practicing this lifestyle has given the Bajau unique adaptations to swimming underwater. Many find it straightforward to dive up to 13 minutes 200 feet below the surface of the ocean.
  • Unfortunately, many disparate factors are erasing the traditional Bajau way of life.
Keep reading Show less

After death, you’re aware that you’ve died, say scientists

Some evidence attributes a certain neurological phenomenon to a near death experience.

Credit: Petr Kratochvil. PublicDomainPictures.net.
Surprising Science

Time of death is considered when a person has gone into cardiac arrest. This is the cessation of the electrical impulse that drive the heartbeat. As a result, the heart locks up. The moment the heart stops is considered time of death. But does death overtake our mind immediately afterward or does it slowly creep in?

Keep reading Show less

Cornell scientists engineer artificial material that has three key traits of life

An innovation may lead to lifelike self-reproducing and evolving machines.

Shogo Hamada/Cornell University
Surprising Science
  • Scientists at Cornell University devise a material with 3 key traits of life.
  • The goal for the researchers is not to create life but lifelike machines.
  • The researchers were able to program metabolism into the material's DNA.
Keep reading Show less