The History of Zero

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It was written by the rivers of Babylon with a double wedge. The Sumerians used it as a place holder. The Alexandrians wrote it with an “0” as we do today, but no one knows who invented it. Archimedes outnumbered all the grains of sand on all the beaches in the world without it. The Pythagoreans may have known it, but we’ll never know.

The Arabs first imagined it in its modern sense. The Europeans feared it when it came, and called it ‘dangerous Saracen magic.’ It’s the form of emptiness and emptiness of form, the glass unfilled, the great equalizer of numbers. It’s neither positive nor negative. Shakespeare loved it above all other figures. It marks the beginning point and maybe the end, too.

It’s the middle of the number line and the root of the Y2K problem. The early Greeks had no word for it, but we have plenty: Goose Egg. Cipher. Zip. Nil. Nada. Nihil.

We’re making much ado about nothing and the natural history of zero, on this hour.
(Hosted by Christopher Lydon)


Dr. Kaplan