Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Chasing the Meaning of Zero

Credit: peter_waters/Adobe

Credit: peter_waters/Adobe

By Scarlett Howard, Jair Garcia & Adrian Dyer

It took early mathematicians until 400 BC to determine the concept of zero, yet the simple bee brain can be trained to recognise an “empty set” within a few hours.

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Mathematics allows us to count, add, subtract, and perform complex numerical operations. Understanding the concept of zero as an empty set is not a trivial task, even for mathematicians.

There are four levels of developing an understanding of zero:

  1. understanding zero as the absence of something;
  2. understanding zero as “nothing” versus “something”;
  3. understanding that zero can have a quantitative value that belongs at the low end of the positive number line; and
  4. understanding that zero can be assigned a symbolic representation that can be used in modern mathematics and calculations.

So far, level 4 is only known to be possible in humans. For example, we can write and understand the equation 3–3 = 0.

Zero has been a very important conceptual leap in how humans have developed technology and culture. Think of how important binary coding is as a backbone to how almost all of our current computers and technology work.

The ability to use zero as a quantitative number with its own value actually took a long time to develop in human culture, and until recently it was thought to be such an advanced concept that it required a large human brain. Indeed, several ancient human civilisations did not have a representation for zero, but by around 400–500 BC in China counting rods were used with a blank space to...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.