Communicating the Bird
The Invention of Zero
By which nothing is divided.
no Adam, no apple, no marriage, no morning.
no God, no soul, no ear lobe, no Iliad, no Odyssey.
no black hole
no mission, no omission, no fission, no fusion.
no 7:30, no wind, no window, no owl, no one.
In 773, at Al-Mansur's behest, translations were made of the Siddhantas, Indian
astronomical treatises dating as far back as 425 B.C.; these versions may have been
the vehicles through which the "Arabic'"numerals and the zero were brought from
India into China and then to the Islamic countries. In 813 the Persian
mathematician Khwarizmi used the Hindu numerals in his astronomical tables;
about 825 he issued a treatise known in its Latin form as Algoritmi de numero
Indorum, Khwarizmi on Numerals of the Indians. After him, in 976, Muhammed ibn
Ahmad in his "Keys to the Sciences," remarked that if in a calculation no number
appears in the place of tens, a little circle should be used "to keep the rows." This
circle the Arabs called sifr. That was the earliest mention of the name sifr that
eventually became zero. Italian zefiro already meant "west wind" from Latin and
Greek zephyrus. This may have influenced the spelling when transcribing Arabic
sifr. The Italian mathematician Fibonacci (c. 1170-1250), who grew up in North
Africa and is credited with introducing the decimal system in Europe, used the term
zephyrum. This became zefiro in Italian, which was contracted to zero in Venetian.
After my father's appointment by his homeland as a state official in the customs
house of Bugia for the Pisan merchants who thronged to it, he took charge; and in
view of its future usefulness and convenience, had me in my boyhood come to him
and there wanted me to devote myself to and be instructed in the study of
calculation for some days. There, following my introduction, as a consequence of
marvelous instruction in the art, to the nine digits of the Hindus, the knowledge of
the art very much appealed to me before all others, and for it I realized that all its
aspects were studied in Egypt, Syria, Greece, Sicily, and Provence, with their
varying methods; and at these places thereafter, while on business, I pursued my
study in depth and learned the give-and-take of disputation. But all this even, and
the algorism, as well as the art of Pythagoras, I considered as almost a mistake in
respect to the method of the Hindus (Modus Indorum). Therefore, embracing more
stringently that method of the Hindus, and taking stricter pains in its study, while
adding certain things from my own understanding and inserting also certain things
from the niceties of Euclid's geometric art, I have striven to compose this book in its
entirety as understandably as I could, dividing it into fifteen chapters. Almost
everything which I have introduced I have displayed with exact proof, in order that
those further seeking this knowledge, with its pre-eminent method, might be
instructed, and further, in order that the Latin people might not be discovered to be
without it, as they have been up to now. If I have perchance omitted anything more
or less proper or necessary, I beg indulgence, since there is no one who is blameless
and utterly provident in all things. The nine Indian figures are: 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1.
With these nine figures, and with the sign 0 . . . any number may be written.
Fibonacci, Leonardo of Pisa
Copyright 2012 by Robert Ronnow. Acknowledgements.