If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The journey of zero

Every educated Indian knows that ZERO was invented (or should we say discovered?) in India. And most educated Indians know that Pythagoras’s theorem (the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle equals the sum of the squares of its two other sides) had been put forward by an Indian mathematician long before. But let’s keep it aside for the moment. What kind of a man was Pythagoras?

A student of Pythagoras, Hippasus challenged another theory of Pythagoras. In fact, he proved it wrong. How did Pythagoras solve the problem? Did he accept the truth? Did he try in vain to prove Hippasus wrong? No, he found an easier solution. He simply murdered his student.

The tradition intellectual dishonesty continues to this day. In fact, it is quite common, like the lack of common sense. You do come across ciphers that pretend to be knowledgeable.

And that brings us back to zero. Another word for zero is cipher, but cipher also means “secret code”. Now, do you know the answers to the following questions?

1. How did cipher or zero begin to be associated with secret codes?

2. Why did the city of Florence ban the use of zero in 1299?

3. Which Indian mathematician proved what is known as Pythagoras’s Theorem? When?

4. How did the Greek colony of Croton celebrate when Pythagoras proved his theorem?

5. What was the name of the Indian mathematician who not only introduced the concept of zero, but also invented the place value of digits in a number (units, tens, hundreds, and so on) and negative numbers? When did he do it?

6. How many centuries did it take for Mr Zero to travel to Europe from India? What was his route?

7. How did people do arithmetical operations (addition, multiplication, subtraction, division) before they learned to use the number system in which different digits have different place values?

8. Who introduced the concept of the irrational numbers? That is, a number that cannot be expressed as ratio of two natural numbers? When?

Since I began with intellectual honesty, I must reluctantly admit that if I had taken this quiz yesterday, I would have scored a big, you’ve got it right, zero. What is your score, Dear Reader?

To check your answers, please read this brilliant article by Brishti Guha, who teaches economics at JNU, Delhi.


PS: If your score is close to mine, it would only indicate how ignorant we Indians are about our past. And how stupid are our present rulers, who instead of focusing on the great intellectual tradition of our country, try to prove that Ganesha’s story was a case of head transplant and a proof of plastic surgery!

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