Third Millennium Chronology

The table below gives a summary chronology of third millennium Mesopotamia. The intent is to show the basic periodization, rather than any details. Most dates are approximate and all are BC(E). Period divisions are fairly arbitrary and have been conspicuously rounded. Period Date 32003100 31002900 29002600 26002450 24502350 23502200 21002000 large-scale irrigation, Gilgamesh literature mix of archaic and cuneiform signs first empire state control Ur multiplication table, geometrical exercises, 'division' problems. Lagash Events emergence of writing, complex metrology Sources

Uruk IV

6000 tablets, mostly from Uruk. 85% administrative.

Uruk III/ Jemdet Nasr Early Dynastic (ED) I, II ED III (Fara) ED III (PreSargonic) Sargonic = Old Akkadian Ur III

About a dozen exercise tablets. c. 100000 tablets, about 45000 published, mostly economic documents.

There are many problems with third millennium chronology. Where the sources are abundant, we often have a detailed and precise relative chronology, without necessarily being able to translate this into a secure absolute chronology. That is, we know what order events happened and how long they took, but we may not be able to assign dates in our dating system. Of course, for those periods where we have few primary sources, an absolute chronology can be even more difficult to obtain. In addition to the problems of dating, periodization in third millennium Mesopotamia is complicated by the varying terminology and concerns coming from different disciplines: there are archaeological levels and type-sites; historical periods derived from literature and political and economic documents, and linguistic periods determined by philological criteria. The table above is intended to give only an approximate and outline periodization, sufficient for the purposes of this survey. A good recent discussion of some of the problems in Near Eastern

chronology, accompanied by many references, is in A. Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East c. 3000-330 BC, Routledge, 1995, pp. 8-72.

Third Millennium Mathematics
Many people are aware of the earliest mathematical artifacts, the tokens of the Near East, and equally well-known is the flourishing of mathematics in the Old Babylonian period. The intervening period is much less well-known, and yet this crucial third millennium witnessed the development of abstract numbers and the arrival of the famous sexagesimal place value system. This section of the site gives a brief overview of third millennium mathematics. From some places and times, we have a great abundance of tablets and are able to build up a detailed picture of mathematical practices; at others the archaeological record is sparse and we shall pass in silence over great passages of time about which we know nothing. Most of the sites in Mesopotamia yielding good third millennium tablets are found in the southern region, in Sumer, although one important site, Jemdet Nasr, is further north. It is believed that this southern region, containing such cities as Ur and Uruk, was the most developed area at the time, but how much this conclusion could be challenged by new archaeological evidence is unclear. Certainly the current excavations of Hamoukar in the far north could provide important new information and the standard view of the Uruk expansion in the fourth millennium seems to be undergoing some revisions which will doubtless affect our view of the subsequent periods (see, for example, Algaze (1993), Stein (1999) and Van de Mieroop (1997)). We restrict our attention here to core Mesopotamia and say nothing about the important sources from Ebla to the northwest (see Archi (1989), Friberg (1986)) and Elam in the southeast (Damerow and Englund (1989)). Chronology: Summary chronology of the Third Millennium. Archaic Mathematics: Emergence of mathematics in late Fourth Millennium. Early Dynastic Sargonic Ur III Tablets Bibliography

y y y y y y y

This section is largely based on a talk I gave at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Society for History and Philosophy of Mathematics in June 2000, and the paper that appeared in the subsequent Proceedings.

Tokens: the origin of mathematics

Tokens are small geometric clay objects (cylinders, cones, spheres, etc.) found all over the Near East from about 8000 B.C. until the development of writing. Their significance as the precursors of both mathematics and writing was first recognized by Denise Schmandt-Besserat of the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1970's. Her theories as to their development, usage and significance have been elaborated and refined in a series of publications over the past 20 years. This brief summary is largely based on her writings. Tokens are first identified at around the same time as the local peoples changed from a life based on hunting and gathering to one based on agriculture. The tokens, as Schmandt-Besserat says, "were part and parcel of the Neolithic phenomenon; that is, the so-called agricultural revolution." (Before Writing 41). The earliest tokens were simple shapes and were comparatively unadorned; they stood for basic agricultural commodities such as grain and sheep. A specific shape of token always represented a specific quantity of a particular item. For example, "the cone ... stood for a small measure of grain, the sphere represented a large measure of grain, the ovoid stood for a jar of oil." (Before Writing 161). Here are some examples of simple tokens. Two jars of oil would be represented by two ovoids, three jars by three ovoids, and so on. Thus, the tokens presented an abstraction of the things being counted, but also a system of great specificity and precision. The abstract notion of 'fiveness' had not yet been separated from what was being counted. With the development of cities came a more complex economy and more complex social structures. This cultural evolution is reflected in the tokens, which begin to appear in a much greater diversity of shapes and are given more complicated designs of incisions and holes. Here are some examples of complex tokens. The standardization of the tokens meant that they had great power for record-keeping and contracts in a way that counting using pebbles or twigs would not do. A collection of tokens could represent a future promised transaction, or be kept in an archive (in a temple or palace) as a record of a past transaction. Both contracts and archives require secure methods of keeping groups of tokens. The Mesopotamians devised two main systems of storage. The first involved piercing the tokens with small holes, stringing them on a piece of cord and attaching the ends of the string to a solid lump of clay, called a bulla. Bullae typically are of a size to fit in the palm of a hand and are marked with impressions of a cylinder seal to identify the parties to the transaction and prevent later tampering. Any attempt to alter the number or type of tokens would involve breaking the seals. The second major method was storing the tokens inside a hollow clay envelope, which was then marked by a seal. These two methods were contemporaneous, though, curiously, the two systems were used differentially for plain and complex tokens. "For reason we do not know, plain tokens were most often secured by envelopes and complex tokens by bullae." (Before Writing 110). Of the two systems, the practice of storing tokens in clay envelopes was the more significant for the development of mathematics. Envelopes provided a solution to the problem of secure storage

of tokens, but like many technological solutions, raised problems of their own. "A clay envelope has one obvious drawback as a means of storing information: it is not transparent; if you forget what is inside, the only way to find out is to break open the seal." (Oneness 48). The resolution of this problem was to impress the tokens on the outside of the envelope before sealing them inside. The outside marks could then serve as a reference and the envelope could be broken open to check the actual contents if there was any dispute about the marks. The last step in the evolution of tokens was a merging of the two systems of bullae and envelopes. Simple tokens were impressed to make marks on a solid lump, or tablet, of clay. Only the tablet was then kept. Within a couple of hundred years, this new system was also being used for the complex tokens, but here, because their complicated shapes and designs did not transfer well to the tablet, an image of the token was drawn on the clay. This new system, in place by about 3000 B.C., afforded greater ease of use and storage, at a price of a certain loss of security. These impressed or drawn marks on the clay tablets were the beginnings of a numeration system. It should be noted that while most scholars agree with the outlines of Schmandt-Besserat's argument, there are many disagreements as to the details. Eleanor Robson's bibliography lists several of the dissenting views.

Sources not in Eleanor Robson's bibliography: Schmandt-Besserat, D. 'Oneness, Twoness, Threeness,' The Sciences 27 (1987) 44-48. Reprinted (with much more appropriate figures) in F. Swetz (ed.) From five fingers to infinity, Open Court 1994.

Ur III Mathematics
As the Sargonic empire crumbled under a combination of internal and external pressures, Mesopotamia reverted to a patchwork of minor city-states vying for importance. Nowadays, the best remembered of the rulers of these minor city-states is Gudea of Lagash, known for his many statues. Out of the jostling for power in southern Mesopotamia arose the kings who formed the Ur III empire (c. 2100-2000), one of the most centralized and bureaucratic states ever recorded. In his enormously influential article on Ur III bureaucracy, Steinkeller writes, "in terms of the resources concentrated and the level of governmental control exercised in their management, the Ur III state constitutes a unique phenomenon in the history of ancient Mesopotamia« never again did centralization reach such a high degree" [Steinkeller: 22]. The first king of the Ur III dynasty was Ur-Nammu. It is unclear exactly when or how far he extended his sway and his reign of 18 years seems to have been fairly peaceful. He engaged in a lot of temple building, including the famous ziggurat of Ur. The Ur III dynasty reached its zenith under the long reign of his successor, Shulgi. In the middle of his reign, Shulgi instituted a tremendous series of administrative, political and economic reforms. The system of weights and

measures was reformed and a new calendar instituted; the writing system was changed, new administrative procedures were created and a huge bureaucracy developed [Steinkeller: 20ff]. From this point on, we have large numbers of records created by the vast administration and its need for continual, detailed accounting. We currently have around 100,000 Ur III tablets, mostly from a period of only 50 years. Of these, about half or less have been published (mostly just in copy or transliteration) and probably less than a tenth subjected to any concentrated study. The overwhelming majority of Ur III tablets are economic. The huge numbers of scribes needed to maintain the bureaucracy must have been trained, and, given the nature of their society, probably trained in a standardized curriculum. Shulgi himself boasts of his skills in 'counting and accounting'. However, there are very few mathematical or educational texts. The paucity of sources and focus on practical matters has led Hoyrup to comment, "Ur III mathematics appears to have been strictly utilitarian in orientation" [1994: 22]. In contrast to the murky picture during the Sargonic period, there is clear evidence for Ur III scribes using the sexagesimal place value system [Powell 1976a]. But calculations were performed on 'scratch' tablets, which were then erased and re-used after the answers had been copied into the main document. By their nature, few of these rough work tablets have survived, and so we know little about how the calculations were performed. From the whole Ur III corpus, we have only one metro-mathematical problem text, where the student has to calculate the volume of a wall and the quantity of bricks needed to build it. The calculations on the back of the tablet use the sexagesimal place value notation [Robson 1999: 66]. Apart from this single tablet, two unusual reciprocal tables are often assumed to be from Ur III [Friberg 1987: 541]. However, the identification of these tablets as coming from Ur III rather than Old Babylonian depends on their unusual features, rather than archaeological context, leading some scholars to be more cautious. For example, Robson goes only so far as to state that they are "less certain of Ur III date" than the problem text [1999: 171]. These are the only documents that are clearly 'school mathematics'. Within the corpus of actual archival texts, we can discern some mathematical developments. Most of the Ur III documents are economic, and an important innovation was the use by the bureaucracy of theoretical worknorms for administrative purposes. That is, a foreman would be assigned a certain work-gang for a certain period of time, to perform specific types of work. The bureaucrats would decide how much work should be accomplished using standard conversions and norms. If the workers produced more than required, it was counted as a credit for the foreman; if less (which was more likely), then as a debit to be carried over to the next year. The plight of the workers was unenviable: "the expected labor performance was in all likelihood simply beyond the capabilities of the normal worker. Moreover, an incentive for the workers to produce more was nonexistent; their remuneration consisted of no more than the minimum amount of grain and clothing required to keep them able to produce" [Englund 1991: 280]. The foreman's lot was not much better. If he died while in debt, the state seized his property, including remaining family members, to pay off the balance [Nissen, Damerow and Englund: 54; Englund 1991: 267-268]. An additional insight into Ur III mathematics is given by a collection of field plans. In order to specify the amount of grain needed to sow in a field, or compute the harvest, administrators needed to know the area of a field. Fields were often of complicated shapes, so, to compute the

area, scribes divided the field up into triangular and quadrilateral pieces. The area of triangles was given as half the base times the length of the side, implicitly assuming the side was measured off perpendicularly to the base (field plans were not drawn to scale). Quadrilateral pieces were usually computed via the 'agrimensor' formula - the area is the average length times the average width, but for some complicated cases, the areas are computed twice, first using one base and side, then the side opposite the base was used and the two results averaged. The meager evidence at our disposal does not allow us to make a more detailed assessment of Ur III mathematics at this time. However, it is clear that at the close of the third millennium, all the pieces were in place to provide the background for the Old Babylonian mathematics that flourished during the next four hundred years. Indeed, Robson has noted that excepting the coefficient lists (with which she was most closely concerned) all other types of mathematical texts known from the Old Babylonian period were used in the third millennium [1999: 169]. Go up to Third Millennium Mathematics Last modified: 30 August 2003 Duncan J. Melville

Comments to

Larger cuneiform numbers
For computation, the Mesopotamians used what is usually referred to as a 'sexagesimal' (i.e., base-60) system. Technically, this is a slightly inaccurate designation as they used only combinations of two symbols bundled together for writing numbers up to 60. For writing numbers greater than 60, they just repeated the symbols in different columns, just as we do, except that where for us a '1' in the 'tens' column means 10, for the Babylonians a in the 'sixties' column meant 60. Each column increased the value of the number by a factor of 60, and the Babylonians wrote their numbers with the largest values to the left, just as we do. Here are some examples of cuneiform numbers, their transliterations and values in our notation.


1,15 1,40 16,43 44,26,40 1,24,51,10

Decimal value 75 100 1003 160000 305470

There are a few differences between the way we write our numbers and the way the Babylonians did. First, they had no special way to mark an empty column. We would write a zero to mark the place, they would often leave a space, but not always. For example, it is not always clear if should mean '2' or '61', or even '3601'. In practice, empty columns don't arise that often in a base-60 system and so this was not such a problem as you may think. Later on, in the NeoBabylonian and Seleucid times, when astronomers needed to do lots of many-place sexagesimal computations, they did introduce an empty-column marker. One of the great advantages of a place-value system is that you can use the same symbols to make ever larger numbers. There is no limit to how large a number you can write down. Another advantage is that you can continue writing numbers in places to the right of the units column in order to denote fractions. All that distinguishes the number 1234 from the number 1.234 is the use of a decimal point (or comma in Europe) to mark where the units come. Computations with fractions are just the same as computations with whole numbers. The Babylonians used the same idea, except that they did not bother with a decimal point - that absolute size of a number was 'determined by inspection.' For example, the number could mean 160000, as noted above, but it could also be 1/81, the reciprocal of 81, which is why it was widely used. In the early days of deciphering Mesopotamian mathematics, people were puzzled as to why they would go to the trouble of writing a 160000-times multiplication table. The last sexagesimal number given in the table above, , also has a more useful meaning than 305470. I leave it to you to figure out what it is, but the answer is on another page in this site.

Old Babylonian 'Quadratic' Problems
Old Babylonian mathematicians were much taken with problems involving two unknowns and square roots, what we would term 'quadratic' problems. These problems usually involved finding lengths, widths or diagonals of rectangles. The simplest example would be a problem giving the sum of the length and width of a rectangle (or field) and its area. The problem is to find the length and the width. So we might read, 'Length plus width is 50. Area is 600. What are the length and the width?' In all of Old Babylonian mathematics, it is understood that the length (u ) is at least as large as the width (sag). A modern student would probably write down the formulas first as, say, , substitute for w in the second equation to and , solve the for l . The Old

get , and then solve the quadratic equation using the quadratic formula to obtain , from which it follows that Babylonian procedure was rather different.

First, it is important to note that Mesopotamian was largely algorithmic in style. That is, instead of writing down a formula and substituting particular values for the variables, Old Babylonian mathematicians concentrated on following a particular procedure. The procedure for the type of problem given above was as follows: Step 1: Take half the sum of the length and width (we'll call this the half-sum): 25 Step 2: Square the half-sum: 625. Step 3: Subtract the area: 25 Step 4: Take the square root: 5 Length is half-sum + square root: 30 Width is half-sum - square root: 20. Another popular type of problem is where the student is given the difference of the length and the width as well as the area. So we would read, 'The length exceeds the width by 10. The area is 600. What are the length and the width?' The procedure for this type of problem is very similar. Step 1: Take half the difference of the length and width (the half-difference): 5 Step 2: Square the half-difference: 25 Step 3: Add the area: 625 Step 4: Take the square root: 25 Length is square root + half-difference: 30 Width is square root - half-difference: 20. Hundreds of these 'rectangular' problems are known. In many cases, just the problem is stated, but in others the procedure is given so that we can see how they solved the particular types of problems. Interestingly, we have no examples of the two basic types given above. They must have been considered too easy to bother writing them down. However, in the case of more complicated types of problems (such as being given the difference of the length and width and the area minus the square of the difference) the first step is to reduce the problem to one of the two standard types above and then solve it with the standard procedure. The first major analysis of Babylonian rectangular problems was by Solomon Gandz1 in 1937, in a massive paper in Osiris. He divided Mesopotamian quadratic problems into nine types, of which the simple ones we gave above are Types I and II. In that paper, Gandz also speculated as to how the Babylonians derived their procedures and noted the similarities between their

approaches and the procedures of Diophantus, contrasting these with both the Arabic and modern approaches.

1. Gandz, S. 'The origin and development of the quadratic equations in Babylonian, Greek and early Arabic algebra,' Osiris 3 (1937) 405-557.

A history of Zero
Ancient Indian Mathematics index History Topics Index Version for printing

One of the commonest questions which the readers of this archive ask is: Who discovered zero? Why then have we not written an article on zero as one of the first in the archive? The reason is basically because of the difficulty of answering the question in a satisfactory form. If someone had come up with the concept of zero which everyone then saw as a brilliant innovation to enter mathematics from that time on, the question would have a satisfactory answer even if we did not know which genius invented it. The historical record, however, shows quite a different path towards the concept. Zero makes shadowy appearances only to vanish again almost as if mathematicians were searching for it yet did not recognise its fundamental significance even when they saw it. The first thing to say about zero is that there are two uses of zero which are both extremely important but are somewhat different. One use is as an empty place indicator in our place-value number system. Hence in a number like 2106 the zero is used so that the positions of the 2 and 1 are correct. Clearly 216 means something quite different. The second use of zero is as a number itself in the form we use it as 0. There are also different aspects of zero within these two uses, namely the concept, the notation, and the name. (Our name "zero" derives ultimately from the Arabic sifr which also gives us the word "cipher".) Neither of the above uses has an easily described history. It just did not happen that someone invented the ideas, and then everyone started to use them. Also it is fair to say that the number zero is far from an intuitive concept. Mathematical problems started as 'real' problems rather than abstract problems. Numbers in early historical times were thought of much more concretely than the abstract concepts which are our numbers today. There are giant mental leaps from 5 horses to 5 "things" and then to the abstract idea of "five". If ancient peoples solved a problem about how many horses a farmer needed then the problem was not going to have 0 or -23 as an answer.

One might think that once a place-value number system came into existence then the 0 as an empty place indicator is a necessary idea, yet the Babylonians had a place-value number system without this feature for over 1000 years. Moreover there is absolutely no evidence that the Babylonians felt that there was any problem with the ambiguity which existed. Remarkably, original texts survive from the era of Babylonian mathematics. The Babylonians wrote on tablets of unbaked clay, using cuneiform writing. The symbols were pressed into soft clay tablets with the slanted edge of a stylus and so had a wedge-shaped appearance (and hence the name cuneiform). Many tablets from around 1700 BC survive and we can read the original texts. Of course their notation for numbers was quite different from ours (and not based on 10 but on 60) but to translate into our notation they would not distinguish between 2106 and 216 (the context would have to show which was intended). It was not until around 400 BC that the Babylonians put two wedge symbols into the place where we would put zero to indicate which was meant, 216 or 21 '' 6. The two wedges were not the only notation used, however, and on a tablet found at Kish, an ancient Mesopotamian city located east of Babylon in what is today south-central Iraq, a different notation is used. This tablet, thought to date from around 700 BC, uses three hooks to denote an empty place in the positional notation. Other tablets dated from around the same time use a single hook for an empty place. There is one common feature to this use of different marks to denote an empty position. This is the fact that it never occured at the end of the digits but always between two digits. So although we find 21 '' 6 we never find 216 ''. One has to assume that the older feeling that the context was sufficient to indicate which was intended still applied in these cases. If this reference to context appears silly then it is worth noting that we still use context to interpret numbers today. If I take a bus to a nearby town and ask what the fare is then I know that the answer "It's three fifty" means three pounds fifty pence. Yet if the same answer is given to the question about the cost of a flight from Edinburgh to New York then I know that three hundred and fifty pounds is what is intended. We can see from this that the early use of zero to denote an empty place is not really the use of zero as a number at all, merely the use of some type of punctuation mark so that the numbers had the correct interpretation. Now the ancient Greeks began their contributions to mathematics around the time that zero as an empty place indicator was coming into use in Babylonian mathematics. The Greeks however did not adopt a positional number system. It is worth thinking just how significant this fact is. How could the brilliant mathematical advances of the Greeks not see them adopt a number system with all the advantages that the Babylonian place-value system possessed? The real answer to this question is more subtle than the simple answer that we are about to give, but basically the Greek mathematical achievements were based on geometry. Although Euclid's Elements contains a book on number theory, it is based on geometry. In other words Greek mathematicians did not need to name their numbers since they worked with numbers as lengths of lines. Numbers which required to be named for records were used by merchants, not mathematicians, and hence no clever notation was needed.

Now there were exceptions to what we have just stated. The exceptions were the mathematicians who were involved in recording astronomical data. Here we find the first use of the symbol which we recognise today as the notation for zero, for Greek astronomers began to use the symbol O. There are many theories why this particular notation was used. Some historians favour the explanation that it is omicron, the first letter of the Greek word for nothing namely "ouden". Neugebauer, however, dismisses this explanation since the Greeks already used omicron as a number - it represented 70 (the Greek number system was based on their alphabet). Other explanations offered include the fact that it stands for "obol", a coin of almost no value, and that it arises when counters were used for counting on a sand board. The suggestion here is that when a counter was removed to leave an empty column it left a depression in the sand which looked like O. Ptolemy in the Almagest written around 130 AD uses the Babylonian sexagesimal system together with the empty place holder O. By this time Ptolemy is using the symbol both between digits and at the end of a number and one might be tempted to believe that at least zero as an empty place holder had firmly arrived. This, however, is far from what happened. Only a few exceptional astronomers used the notation and it would fall out of use several more times before finally establishing itself. The idea of the zero place (certainly not thought of as a number by Ptolemy who still considered it as a sort of punctuation mark) makes its next appearance in Indian mathematics. The scene now moves to India where it is fair to say the numerals and number system was born which have evolved into the highly sophisticated ones we use today. Of course that is not to say that the Indian system did not owe something to earlier systems and many historians of mathematics believe that the Indian use of zero evolved from its use by Greek astronomers. As well as some historians who seem to want to play down the contribution of the Indians in a most unreasonable way, there are also those who make claims about the Indian invention of zero which seem to go far too far. For example Mukherjee in [6] claims:... the mathematical conception of zero ... was also present in the spiritual form from 17 000 years back in India. What is certain is that by around 650AD the use of zero as a number came into Indian mathematics. The Indians also used a place-value system and zero was used to denote an empty place. In fact there is evidence of an empty place holder in positional numbers from as early as 200AD in India but some historians dismiss these as later forgeries. Let us examine this latter use first since it continues the development described above. In around 500AD Aryabhata devised a number system which has no zero yet was a positional system. He used the word "kha" for position and it would be used later as the name for zero. There is evidence that a dot had been used in earlier Indian manuscripts to denote an empty place in positional notation. It is interesting that the same documents sometimes also used a dot to denote an unknown where we might use x. Later Indian mathematicians had names for zero in positional numbers yet had no symbol for it. The first record of the Indian use of zero which is dated and agreed by all to be genuine was written in 876.

We have an inscription on a stone tablet which contains a date which translates to 876. The inscription concerns the town of Gwalior, 400 km south of Delhi, where they planted a garden 187 by 270 hastas which would produce enough flowers to allow 50 garlands per day to be given to the local temple. Both of the numbers 270 and 50 are denoted almost as they appear today although the 0 is smaller and slightly raised. We now come to considering the first appearance of zero as a number. Let us first note that it is not in any sense a natural candidate for a number. From early times numbers are words which refer to collections of objects. Certainly the idea of number became more and more abstract and this abstraction then makes possible the consideration of zero and negative numbers which do not arise as properties of collections of objects. Of course the problem which arises when one tries to consider zero and negatives as numbers is how they interact in regard to the operations of arithmetic, addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. In three important books the Indian mathematicians Brahmagupta, Mahavira and Bhaskara tried to answer these questions. Brahmagupta attempted to give the rules for arithmetic involving zero and negative numbers in the seventh century. He explained that given a number then if you subtract it from itself you obtain zero. He gave the following rules for addition which involve zero:The sum of zero and a negative number is negative, the sum of a positive number and zero is positive, the sum of zero and zero is zero. Subtraction is a little harder:A negative number subtracted from zero is positive, a positive number subtracted from zero is negative, zero subtracted from a negative number is negative, zero subtracted from a positive number is positive, zero subtracted from zero is zero. Brahmagupta then says that any number when multiplied by zero is zero but struggles when it comes to division:A positive or negative number when divided by zero is a fraction with the zero as denominator. Zero divided by a negative or positive number is either zero or is expressed as a fraction with zero as numerator and the finite quantity as denominator. Zero divided by zero is zero. Really Brahmagupta is saying very little when he suggests that n divided by zero is n/0. Clearly he is struggling here. He is certainly wrong when he then claims that zero divided by zero is zero. However it is a brilliant attempt from the first person that we know who tried to extend arithmetic to negative numbers and zero. In 830, around 200 years after Brahmagupta wrote his masterpiece, Mahavira wrote Ganita Sara Samgraha which was designed as an updating of Brahmagupta's book. He correctly states that:... a number multiplied by zero is zero, and a number remains the same when zero is subtracted from it.

However his attempts to improve on Brahmagupta's statements on dividing by zero seem to lead him into error. He writes:A number remains unchanged when divided by zero. Since this is clearly incorrect my use of the words "seem to lead him into error" might be seen as confusing. The reason for this phrase is that some commentators on Mahavira have tried to find excuses for his incorrect statement. Bhaskara wrote over 500 years after Brahmagupta. Despite the passage of time he is still struggling to explain division by zero. He writes:A quantity divided by zero becomes a fraction the denominator of which is zero. This fraction is termed an infinite quantity. In this quantity consisting of that which has zero for its divisor, there is no alteration, though many may be inserted or extracted; as no change takes place in the infinite and immutable God when worlds are created or destroyed, though numerous orders of beings are absorbed or put forth. So Bhaskara tried to solve the problem by writing n/0 = ’. At first sight we might be tempted to believe that Bhaskara has it correct, but of course he does not. If this were true then 0 times ’ must be equal to every number n, so all numbers are equal. The Indian mathematicians could not bring themselves to the point of admitting that one could not divide by zero. Bhaskara did correctly state other properties of zero, however, such as 02 = 0, and ¥0 = 0. Perhaps we should note at this point that there was another civilisation which developed a placevalue number system with a zero. This was the Maya people who lived in central America, occupying the area which today is southern Mexico, Guatemala, and northern Belize. This was an old civilisation but flourished particularly between 250 and 900. We know that by 665 they used a place-value number system to base 20 with a symbol for zero. However their use of zero goes back further than this and was in use before they introduced the place-valued number system. This is a remarkable achievement but sadly did not influence other peoples. You can see a separate article about Mayan mathematics. The brilliant work of the Indian mathematicians was transmitted to the Islamic and Arabic mathematicians further west. It came at an early stage for al-Khwarizmi wrote Al'Khwarizmi on the Hindu Art of Reckoning which describes the Indian place-value system of numerals based on 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 0. This work was the first in what is now Iraq to use zero as a place holder in positional base notation. Ibn Ezra, in the 12th century, wrote three treatises on numbers which helped to bring the Indian symbols and ideas of decimal fractions to the attention of some of the learned people in Europe. The Book of the Number describes the decimal system for integers with place values from left to right. In this work ibn Ezra uses zero which he calls galgal (meaning wheel or circle). Slightly later in the 12th century al-Samawal was writing:If we subtract a positive number from zero the same negative number remains. ... if we subtract a negative number from zero the same positive number remains.

The Indian ideas spread east to China as well as west to the Islamic countries. In 1247 the Chinese mathematician Ch'in Chiu-Shao wrote Mathematical treatise in nine sections which uses the symbol O for zero. A little later, in 1303, Zhu Shijie wrote Jade mirror of the four elements which again uses the symbol O for zero. Fibonacci was one of the main people to bring these new ideas about the number system to Europe. As the authors of [12] write:An important link between the Hindu-Arabic number system and the European mathematics is the Italian mathematician Fibonacci. In Liber Abaci he described the nine Indian symbols together with the sign 0 for Europeans in around 1200 but it was not widely used for a long time after that. It is significant that Fibonacci is not bold enough to treat 0 in the same way as the other numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 since he speaks of the "sign" zero while the other symbols he speaks of as numbers. Although clearly bringing the Indian numerals to Europe was of major importance we can see that in his treatment of zero he did not reach the sophistication of the Indians Brahmagupta, Mahavira and Bhaskara nor of the Arabic and Islamic mathematicians such as al-Samawal. One might have thought that the progress of the number systems in general, and zero in particular, would have been steady from this time on. However, this was far from the case. Cardan solved cubic and quartic equations without using zero. He would have found his work in the 1500's so much easier if he had had a zero but it was not part of his mathematics. By the 1600's zero began to come into widespread use but still only after encountering a lot of resistance. Of course there are still signs of the problems caused by zero. Recently many people throughout the world celebrated the new millennium on 1 January 2000. Of course they celebrated the passing of only 1999 years since when the calendar was set up no year zero was specified. Although one might forgive the original error, it is a little surprising that most people seemed unable to understand why the third millennium and the 21st century begin on 1 January 2001. Zero is still causing problems! References (14 books/articles) Other Web sites: Astroseti (A Spanish translation of this article) Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

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