A while back the Internet was full of reports about a sensational discovery in the history of mathematics. Two researchers had apparently proved that a well know Babylonian cuneiform clay tablet (Plimpton 322), which contains a list of Pythagorean triples, is in fact a proof that the Babylonians had developed trigonometry one thousand years before the Greeks and it was even a superior and more accurate system than that of the Greeks. My first reaction was that the reports contained considerably more hype than substance, a reaction that was largely confirmed by an excellent blog post on the topic by Evelyn Lamb.
This was followed by an equally excellent and equally deflating essay by Eduardo A Escobar an expert on cuneiform tablets. And so another hyped sensation is brought crashing down into the real world. Both put downs were endorsed by Eleanor Robson author of Mathematics in Ancient Iraq: A Social History and a leading expert on Babylonian mathematics.
Last week saw the next history of mathematics press feeding frenzy with the announcement by the Bodleian Library in Oxford that an Indian manuscript containing a symbol for zero had been re-dated using radio carbon dating and was now considered to be from the third to fourth centuries CE rather than the eight century CE, making it the earliest known Indian symbol for zero. This is of course an interesting and significant discovery in the history of mathematics but it doesn’t actually change our knowledge of that history in any really significant way. I will explain later, but first the hype in the various Internet reports.
We start off with Richard Ovenden from Bodleian Libraries who announced, “The finding is of “vital importance” to the history of mathematics.”
The Guardian leads off with an article by Marcus Du Sautoy: Much ado about nothing: ancient Indian text contains earliest zero symbol. Who in a video film and in the text of his article tells us, “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.”
The Science Museum’s article Illuminating India: starring the oldest recorded origins of ‘zero’, the Bakhshali manuscript, basically repeats the Du Sautoy doctrine,
Medievalists.net makes the fundamental mistake of entitling their contribution, The First Zero, although in the text they return to the wording, “the world’s oldest recorded origin of the zero that we use today.”
The BBC joins the party with another clone of the basic article, Carbon dating reveals earliest origins of zero symbol.
Entrepreneur Cecile G Tamura summed up the implicit and sometimes explicit message of all these reports with the following tweet, One of the greatest conceptual breakthroughs in mathematics has been traced to the Bakhshali manuscript dating from the 3rd or 4th century at a period even earlier than we thought. To which I can only reply, has it?
All of the articles, which are all basically clones of the original announcement state quite clearly that this is a placeholder zero and not the number concept zero and that there are earlier recorded symbols for placeholder zeros in both Babylonian and Mayan mathematics. Of course it was only in Indian mathematics that the place-holder zero developed into the number concept zero of which the earliest evidence can be found in Brahmagupta’s Brahmasphuṭasiddhanta from the seven century CE. However, this re-dating of the Bakhshali manuscript doesn’t actually bring us any closer to knowing when, why or how that conceptual shift, so important in the history of mathematics, took place. Does it in anyway actually change the history of the zero concept within the history of mathematics? No not really.
Historians of mathematics have known for a long time that the history of the zero concept within Indian culture doesn’t begin with Brahmagupta and that it was certainly preceded by a long complex prehistory. They are well aware of zero concepts in Sanskrit linguistics and in Hindu philosophy that stretch back well before the turn of the millennium. In fact it is exactly this linguistic and philosophical acceptance of ‘nothing’ that the historian assume enabled the Indian mathematicians to make the leap to the concept of a number signifying nothing, whereas the Greeks with their philosophical rejection of the void were unable to spring the gap. Having a new earliest symbol in Indian mathematics for zero as a placeholder, as opposed to the earlier recorded words for the concept of nothingness doesn’t actually change anything fundamental in our historical knowledge of the number concept of zero.
There is a small technical problem that should be mentioned in this context. Due to the fact that early Indian culture tended to write on perishable organic material, such as the bark used here, means that the chances of our ever discovering manuscripts documenting that oh so important conceptual leap are relatively low.
I’m afraid I must also take umbrage with another of Richard Ovenden’s claims in the original Bodleian report:
Richard Ovenden, head of the Bodleian Library, said the results highlight a Western bias that has often seen the contributions of South Asian scholars being overlooked. “These surprising research results testify to the subcontinent’s rich and longstanding scientific tradition,” he said.
Whilst this claim might be true in other areas of #histSTM, as far as the history of the so-called Hindu-Arabic numbers system and the number concept zero are concerned it is totally bosh. Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace (1749-1827) wrote the following:
“It is India that gave us the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by means of ten symbols, each symbol receiving a value of position as well as an absolute value; a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit. But its very simplicity and the great ease which it has lent to computations put our arithmetic in the first rank of useful inventions; and we shall appreciate the grandeur of the achievement the more when we remember that it escaped the genius of Archimedes and Apollonius, two of the greatest men produced by antiquity.”
I started buying general books on the history of mathematics more than 45 years ago and now have nine such volumes all of which deal explicitly with the Indian development of the decimal place value number system and the invention of the number concept zero. I own two monographs dedicated solely to the history of the number concept zero. I have four volumes dedicated to the history of number systems all of which deal extensively with the immensely important Indian contributions. I also own two books that are entirely devoted to the history of Indian mathematics. Somehow I can’t see in the case of the massive Indian contribution to the development of number systems that a Western bias has here overseen the contributions of South Asian scholars.
This of course opens the question as to why this discovery was made public at this time and in this overblown manner? Maybe I’m being cynical but could it have something to do with the fact that this manuscript is going on display in a major Science Museum exhibition starting in October?
The hype that I have outlined here in the recent history of mathematics has unfortunately become the norm in all genres of history and in the historical sciences such as archaeology or palaeontology. New discoveries are not presented in a reasonable manner putting them correctly into the context of the state of the art research in the given field but are trumpeted out at a metaphorical 140 decibel claiming that this is a sensation, a discipline re-defining, an unbelievable, a unique, a choose your own hyperbolic superlative discovery. The context is, as above, very often misrepresented to make the new discovery seem more important, more significant, whatever. Everybody is struggling to make themselves heard above the clamour of all the other discovery announcements being made by the competition thereby creating a totally false impression of how academia works and how it progresses. Can we please turn down the volume, cut out the hype and present the results of academic research in history in a manner appropriate to it and not to the marketing of the latest Hollywood mega-bucks, blockbuster?
 For those who are not to sure about these terms, a placeholder zero just indicates an empty space in a place value number system, so you can distinguish between 11 and 101, where here the zero is a placeholder. A number concept zero also fulfils the same function but beyond this is a number in its own right. You can perform the arithmetical operations of addition, subtraction and multiplication with it. However, as we all learnt at school (didn’t we!) you can’t divide by zero; division by zero is not defined.