Bakhshali manuscript contains oldest recorded origins of the symbol ‘zero’

Nemu Chandaria and Matt Kimberley

Matt Kimberley, lead curator for the Science Museum Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation exhibition, which runs from October 2017 - March 2018, ended his talk at the JITOPreneurs G2G Conference 2017 by presenting a replica of Bakhshali manuscript folio, showing the first known symbol of zero to Nemu Chandaria OBE who accepted it on behalf of One Jain, the umbrella organisation for Jain communities.

After the launch of the Science Museum ‘Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation’ exhibition, lead curator Matt Kimberley spoke at the JITOPreneuers G2G Conference on 8th October 2017. He outlined the key exhibits on display as a centrepiece of the major exhibition, including the Jain Bakhshali manuscript. The manuscript was found in 1881, buried in a field in a village called Bakhshali, near Peshawar, in what is now a region of Pakistan. It was found by a local farmer and was acquired by the Indologist AFR Hoernle, who presented it to the Bodleian Library in 1902, where it has been kept since.

Carbon dating finds Bakhshali manuscript contains oldest recorded origins of the ‘zero’

The loan of the Bakhshali manuscript by the Bodleian Library to the Science Museum has caused a sensation among historians as carbon dating finds the Bakhshali manuscript contains the oldest recorded origins of the symbol ‘zero’. The ancient Indian mathematical text has also been revealed to be centuries older than previously thought.

The surprising results of the first ever radiocarbon dating conducted on the Bakhshali manuscript, a seminal mathematical text which contains hundreds of zeroes, reveal that it dates from as early as the 3rd or 4th century – approximately five centuries older than scholars previously believed. This means that the manuscript in fact predates a 9th-century inscription of zero on the wall of a temple in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, which was previously considered to be the oldest recorded example of a zero used as a placeholder in India. The findings are highly significant for the study of the early history of mathematics.

The zero symbol that we use today evolved from a dot that was used in ancient India and can be seen throughout the Bakhshali manuscript. The dot was originally used as a ‘placeholder’, meaning it was used to indicate orders of magnitude in a number system – for example, denoting 10s, 100s and 1000s.

The use of zero as a placeholder

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. Firstly, it is this dot that evolved to have a hollow centre and became the symbol that we use as zero today. Secondly, it was only in India that this zero developed into a number in its own right, hence creating the concept and the number zero that we understand today – this happened in 628 AD, just a few centuries after the Bakhshali manuscript was produced, when the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta wrote a text called Brahmasphutasiddhanta, which is the first document to discuss zero as a number.

Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, said: “Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and is a key building block of the digital world. But the creation of zero as a number in its own right, which evolved from the placeholder dot symbol found in the Bakhshali manuscript, was one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematics.”

‘We now know that it was as early as the 3rd century that mathematicians in India planted the seed of the idea that would later become so fundamental to the modern world. The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian subcontinent for centuries.’

Matt Kimberley speaking at the JITOPreneurs G2G Conference 2017

Illuminating India, 4th October 2017 – 31st March 2017

A folio from the Bakhshali manuscript will go on public display at the Science Museum in London as a centrepiece of the major exhibition Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation, opening 4 October 2017. The exhibition will celebrate India’s central role in the history of science and technology by exploring its influential contributions to subjects as diverse as space exploration, mathematics, communication and engineering.

Another exhibition, Illuminating India: Photography 1857 – 2017, is an ambitious and unprecedented survey of the technological and cultural development of the medium in India, examining photography’s changing role in charting the recent history of the country.

The Illuminating India exhibitions run from 4th October 2017 – 31st March 2017 and are FREE to attend. Accompanying the exhibition is a six month season of ticketed events which can be booked via: www.sciencemuseum.org.uk

Jain community presented with replica of Bakhshali manuscript folio

Matt Kimberley ended his talk about Illuminating India by presenting a replica of Bakhshali manuscript folio, showing the first known symbol of zero to Nemu Chandaria OBE who accepted it on behalf of One Jain, the umbrella organisation for Jain communities.

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