Venice

 

The first translation of the Diamond Sūtra was into Chinese in 179 CE by Lokashema [The Tao-Hsing]. With it the Symbol went East. And took on local forms. Around 1,000 years later, the Symbol headed West and docked in Venice. And did the same.

Carried on the ledger books of Arab traders long settled in Sind, the Symbol stops for a tour of Byzantine and Islamic Astronomy before finally docking in Venice around the 11th Century as the grounding expression of the Decimal System of Number Representation [from the Sanskrit Das, for ‘Ten’].

The Clergy, users of the Abacus, were unimpressed. They saw something decidedly sinister in this immigrant ‘Infidel Symbol’ arriving from the Islamic world. The Roman script at that time didn’t have a symbol for Nothing, didn’t carry a symbol for the absence of that symbolized.

The opening chapter of this expatriate life was penned by Leonardo Fibonacci [1170-1240; ‘The Greatest Western Mathematician of the Middle Period’] who wrote his celebrated Liber Abaci on the Modus Indorum in 1202 CE. [Fibonacci’s statue still stands in the Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa, an hour’s drive from where I spend many an unhurried Autumn.]

If the early philosophical links with the West were Greek, the first mathematical links were Italian. The defense of the Concept of Zero as used in contemporary academia originates [among others] with the postulates of Guiseppe Peano [1858-1932].

Its reach is long. Russell and Whitehead’s encyclopedic Principia Mathematica began as an attempt to extend Guiseppe Peano. And was the bait for Kurt Godel’s rightly celebrated Theorem [‘The…most significant mathematical truth of the century’ cooed Harvard in 1952]. Modern Information Theory and what we call ‘Software’ took shape in this ferment [see the posts].

The Arabic: Sifr [Old-French Cifre; English ‘Cypher’] becomes the Medieval Latin: Zephirum, in time to Zerum and the English ‘Zero’. The symbol’s new life begins here. The economy was booming. Zero-Balance Bookkeeping had just been discovered. And this new symbol just fit the bill of the emerging mercantile classes.

That’s how the Symbol ‘О’ came West. It was not the fierce love for some metaphysical truth from the mysterious East. It helped make money; or rather, keep track of it. A refreshingly sensible reason.


The early Indian archaeological and manuscript finds were mostly along trade routes used by the vibrant Gujarathi and other mercantile communities. The symbol has historically shown a strong and very unspiritual fondness for Money over Mathematics.