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Records show that the Ancient Greeks seemed unsure about the status of 0 as a number: they asked themselves “how can ‘nothing’ be something?” leading to interesting philosophical and, by the Medieval period, religious arguments about the nature and existence of 0 and the vacuum. 1n73ll1g3nc3 15 7h3 4b1l17y 70 4d4p7 70 ch4ng3 573ph3n h4wk1ng shirt The paradoxes of Zeno of Elea depend in part on the uncertain interpretation of 0. (The ancient Greeks even questioned whether 1 was a number. The late Olmec people of south-central Mexico began to use a symbol for zero, a shell glyph, in the New World, possibly by the 4th century BC but certainly by 40 BC, which became an integral part of Maya numerals and the Maya calendar. Mayan arithmetic used base 4 and base 5 written as base 20. Sanchez in 1961 reported a base 4, base 5 “finger” abacus.
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By 130 AD, Ptolemy, influenced by Hipparchus and the Babylonians, was using a symbol for 0 (a small circle with a long overbar) within a sexagesimal numeral system otherwise using alphabetic Greek numerals. Because it was used alone, not as just a placeholder, this Hellenistic zero was the first documented use of a true zero in the Old World. In later Byzantine manuscripts of his Syntaxis Mathematica (Almagest), the Hellenistic zero had morphed into the Greek letter Omicron (otherwise meaning 70). Another true zero was used in tables alongside Roman numerals by 525 (first known use by Dionysius Exiguus), but as a word, nulla meaning nothing, not as a symbol. When division produced 0 as a remainder, nihil, also meaning nothing, was used.