Venice, London And The Earliest Dated Dot


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.]

The Press Release from the venerable Bodleian Library at Oxford along with informed news articles [The Guardian and such] came just about the time I had decided to publish this Site. A coincidence demanding acknowledgment. Below are some excerpts.

Carbon dating reveals earliest origins of zero symbol

Reading from right to left the small dot zero is the seventh character at the bottom right of the manuscript.

Carbon dating shows an ancient Indian manuscript has the earliest recorded origin of the zero symbol. The Bakhshali manuscript is now believed to date from the 3rd or 4th Century, making it hundreds of years older than previously thought…

The finding is of “vital importance” to the history of mathematics, Richard Ovenden from Bodleian Libraries said… It was also only in India where the zero developed into a number in its own right.

Bodleian Libraries said scholars had previously struggled to date it because it is made of 70 leaves of birch bark and composed of material from three different periods.

The creation of zero was one of the “greatest breakthroughs” in mathematics, Prof Marcus Du Sautoy of the University of Oxford said.

‘Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and our whole digital world is based on nothing or something. But there was a moment when there wasn’t this number.’

Translations of the text, which is written in a form of Sanskrit, suggest it was a form of training manual for merchants trading across the Silk Road…

In the fragile document, zero does not yet feature as a number in its own right, but as a placeholder in a number system, just as the “0” in “101” indicates no tens.

It also sowed the seed for zero as a number, which is first described in a text called Brahmasphutasiddhanta, written by the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta in 628 AD.

‘This becomes the birth of the concept of zero in it’s own right and this is a total revolution that happens out of India,’ said Du Sautoy.

The development of zero as a mathematical concept may have been inspired by the region’s long philosophical tradition of contemplating the void and may explain why the concept took so long to catch on in Europe, which lacked the same cultural reference points.

The development of zero in mathematics underpins an incredible range of further work, including the notion of infinity…and some of the deepest questions in cosmology of how the Universe arose – and how it might disappear from existence.

See: Angkor Wat

London, Glorious London. The weather is damp as ever, but the food has markedly improved. And I still get lost in its streets and parks and pubs and museums, happily so.

The original print of the Diamond Sūtra is at the British Museum in London. The original document [The Bakhshali Manuscript above] for the earliest Symbol ‘0’ is an hour away at the Bodleian in Oxford.

It’s time somebody took the bus across and connected Text and Symbol.

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