Most of us, including Yours Truly, have taken the number zero for granted. In fact, it has become synonym of a joke. The English language has several words to identify this number, (e.g., aught, goose egg, nada, naught, nil, nix, nothing, null, zero in, zero point, zilch, zippo and zip.)
A dictionary worth its salt would define zero as, “no amount at all, something of no value or importance. Not anything, nothing at all.” Notice the negative connotation of the definition. Yet, if you analyze the historic contribution of the number zero in the development of mankind, the result is staggering, in search of a better word.
Understanding and working with zero is the basis of our world today; without zero we would lack calculus, financial accounting, the ability to make arithmetic computations quickly, and, especially in today’s connected world—computers
Adding, subtracting, and multiplying by zero are relatively simple operations. But division by zero has confused even great minds. How many times does zero go into ten? Or, how many non-existent apples go into two apples? The answer is indeterminate, but working with this concept is the key to calculus. For example, when one drives to the store, the speed of the car is never constant – stoplights, traffic jams, and different speed limits all cause the car to speed up or slow down. But how would one find the speed of the car at one particular instant? This is where zero and calculus enter the picture.
In the twenty-first century zero is so familiar that to talk about it seems like much ado about nothing. But it is precisely understanding and working with this nothing that has allowed civilization to progress. The development of zero across continents, centuries, and minds has made it one of the greatest accomplishments of human society. Because math is a global language, and calculus its crowning achievement, zero exists and is used everywhere. But, like its function as a symbol and a concept meant to denote absence, zero may still seem like nothing at all. Yet, recall the fears over Y2K and zero no longer seems like a tale told by an idiot.
The following photographs try to depict the mystery of this magic number which many of us, consider it as useless and insignificant. In Panama there is an idiomatic phrase concerning the number zero—él es un cero a la izquierda”. In English it would be translated as, “he is a zero on the left”, which means he is nothing or he is less than trash.
In a nutshell, without the number zero, we would still be in the midst of the Middle Ages. Think about it and next time you will look at this number with up most respect.
Recommended Literature: The History of Zero by Nils-Bertil Wallin