The Bodleian Manuscript

 

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 [Spring, ’18]. 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.


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 museums, happily so.

The original print of the Diamond Sūtra is at the British Museum in London. The original print for the earliest Symbol ‘0’ is an hour away in the Bodleian at Oxford. It’s time somebody took the bus across and connected Dot and Text.