Carbon Dating Reveals the History of Zero Is Older Than Previously Thought

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The study of an ancient Indian manuscript containing the numeral zero has been dated back to the 3rd or 4th century, confirming the symbol gained the status of a numerical value five centuries prior to what earlier studies had proven. "The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries". The Bakhshali manuscript uses the symbol for zero, as conveyed by a solid black dot, at many places making it the oldest known example of the symbol that would later evolve into a number in its own right.

The new carbon dating reveals that the reason why it was previously so hard for scholars to pinpoint the Bakhshali manuscripts date is because the manuscript, which consists of 70 fragile leaves of birch bark, is in fact composed of material from at least three different periods. The Bakhshali manuscript was found in 1881, buried in a field in a village called Bakhshali near Peshawar. The text was originally identified as being a Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit; the manuscript contained hundreds of zero symbols and was likely used by merchants who needed a reference for their daily trading activities.

The manuscript was particularly hard to age as it is made from 70 leaves of birch bark and composed of material from three separate periods.

The Bakhshali manuscript has been housed in Oxford's Bodleian library since 1902.

The earliest recorded example of the use of zero was previously believed to be a 9th century inscription of the symbol on the wall of a temple in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh.

Bakshali manuscripts include practical arithmetic exercises and something approaching algebra.

"This is coming out of a culture that is quite happy to conceive of the void, to conceive of the infinite", said Du Sautoy.

The text was in fact found to contain hundreds of zeroes, representing orders of magnitude in the ancient Indian numbers system.

While the use of zero as a placeholder was seen in several different ancient cultures, such as among the ancient Mayans and Babylonians, the symbol in the Bakhshali manuscript is particularly significant for two reasons. "But there was a moment when there wasn't this number". 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 628AD. "It is a concern that we in this country today are not investing in the future and research seems to have taken a backseat", he added. "The whole of modern technology is built on the idea of something and nothing", he says.

The front page of the folio dates to A.D.

According to the report published in Guardian, the results of the study and the manuscript, which is housed in United Kingdom since 1902 would be on public display next month, as part of a major exhibition in London.

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