Exhibit: All or Nothing: The History of Zero

On display from 10/31/19-2/24/20

Zero is a number signifying nothing—literally, a null value. Zero is also a digit signifying huge amounts—the addition of a zero to the end of an integer represents an exponential increase. Zero is simultaneously gigantic and nonexistent, and its history in our number system is a fascinating one.

The number 0 is the smallest non-negative integer, and as such it is a rational number and a real number. Some also consider it a natural number—the lowest natural number, and the only natural number that is not positive. In fact, zero is considered to be neither positive nor negative, though it is agreed to be even as it is technically divisible by 2.

Ancient Babylonian, Egyptian, Mesoamerican, Chinese, and Indian cultures used zero-like symbols as placeholders in their written number system. Some cultures also used a space to denote a positional zero.

In most cultures, the number 0 was identified before the concept of negative numbers was accepted.

Mathematic rules governing how zero could be used in equations first appeared in the Brahmasputha Siddhanta, a mathematic astronomy text written in India in the 7th century. This book also explained the concept and algebraic rules of negative numbers, though several rules in this book have been overturned by modern thinking

Zero is essential to modern technology. In binary code, zero reprisents something akin to “off”; when combined with a 1 signifying “on”, its possible to create the complex software we use every day.

The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero by Robert Kaplan

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife

Powers of Ten: A Book About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero by Philip and Phylis Morrison and the Office of Charles and Ray Eames

Blog post content by Kitty Garner

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