The computer you’re reading this article on right now runs on a binary — strings of zeros and ones. Without zero, modern electronics wouldn’t exist. Without zero, there’s no calculus, which means no modern engineering or automation. Without zero, much of our modern world literally falls apart.
Humanity’s discovery of zero was “a total game changer ... equivalent to us learning language,” says Andreas Nieder, a cognitive scientist at the University of Tübingen in Germany.
But for the vast majority of our history, humans didn’t understand the number zero. It’s not innate in us. We had to invent it. And we have to keep teaching it to the next generation.
Other animals, like monkeys, have evolved to understand the rudimentary concept of nothing. And scientists just reported that even tiny bee brains can compute zero. But it’s only humans that have seized zero and forged it into a tool.
So let’s not take zero for granted. Nothing is fascinating. Here’s why.
What is zero, anyway?
Our understanding of zero is profound when you consider this fact: We don’t often, or perhaps ever, encounter zero in nature.
Numbers like one, two, and three have a counterpart. We can see one light flash on. We can hear two beeps from a car horn. But zero? It requires us to recognize that the absence of something is a thing in and of itself.
“Zero is in the mind, but not in the sensory world,” Robert Kaplan, a Harvard math professor and an author of a book on zero, says. Even in the empty reaches of space, if you can see stars, it means you’re being bathed in their electromagnetic radiation. In the darkest emptiness, there’s always something. Perhaps a true zero — meaning absolute nothingness — may have existed in the time before the Big Bang. But we can never know.
Nevertheless, zero doesn’t have to exist to be useful. In fact, we can use the concept of zero to derive all the other numbers in the universe.
Kaplan walked me through a thought exercise first described by the mathematician John von Neumann. It’s deceptively simple.
Imagine a box with nothing in it. Mathematicians call this empty box “the empty set.” It’s a physical representation of zero. What’s inside the empty box? Nothing.
Now take another empty box, and place it in the first one.
How many things are in the first box now?
There’s one object in it. Then, put another empty box inside the first two. How many objects does it contain now? Two. And that’s how “we derive all the counting numbers from zero … from nothing,” Kaplan says. This is the basis of our number system. Zero is an abstraction and a reality at the same time. “It’s the nothing that is,” as Kaplan said. (At this point in the story, you may want to take another hit on your bong.)
He then put it in more poetic terms. “Zero stands as the far horizon beckoning us on the way horizons do in paintings,” he says. “It unifies the entire picture. If you look at zero you see nothing. But if you look through it, you see the world. It’s the horizon.”
Once we had zero, we have negative numbers. Zero helps us understand that we can use math to think about things that have no counterpart in a physical lived experience; imaginary numbers don’t exist but are crucial to understanding electrical systems. Zero also helps us understand its antithesis, infinity, in all of its extreme weirdness. (Did you know that one infinity can be larger than another?)
Why zero is so damn useful in math
Zero’s influence on our mathematics today is twofold. One: It’s an important placeholder digit in our number system. Two: It’s a useful number in its own right.
The first uses of zero in human history can be traced back to around 5,000 years ago, to ancient Mesopotamia. There, it was used to represent the absence of a digit in a string of numbers.
Here’s an example of what I mean: Think of the number 103. The zero in this case stands for “there’s nothing in the tens column.” It’s a placeholder, helping us understand that this number is one-hundred and three and not 13.
Okay, you might be thinking, “this is basic.” But the ancient Romans didn’t know this. Do you recall how Romans wrote out their numbers? 103 in Roman numerals is CIII. The number 99 is XCIX. You try adding CIII + XCIX. It’s absurd. Placeholder notation is what allows us to easily add, subtract, and otherwise manipulate numbers. Placeholder notation is what allows us to work out complicated math problems on a sheet of paper.
If zero had remained simply a placeholder digit, it would have been a profound tool on its own. But around 1,500 years ago (or perhaps even earlier), in India, zero became its own number, signifying nothing. In the seventh century, the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta wrote down what’s recognized as the first written description of the arithmetic of zero:
When zero is added to a number or subtracted from a number, the number remains unchanged; and a number multiplied by zero becomes zero.
Zero slowly spread across the Middle East before reaching Europe, and the mind of the mathematician Fibonacci in the 1200s, who popularized the “Arabic” numeral system we all use today.
From there, the usefulness of zero exploded. Think of any graph that plots a mathematical function starting at 0,0. This now-ubiquitous method of graphing was only first invented in the 17th century after zero spread to Europe. That century also saw a whole new field of mathematics that depends on zero: calculus.