Where’s the zero?

We apologize, we haven’t been writing for the last few weeks. I would like to claim that there are good reasons, but really there haven’t been. It was my birthday a few weeks ago, then Sue’s was this week, we had a bunch of stuff to do around the house and work, as always is busy—but really, we have just been a bit lazy.

I got an email from a friend of mine with the title of this post as a subject and instantly I knew what happened. He stole my vacation. I know! What kind of friend steals your vacation, and how did he steal my vacation?

As many of you know, I am an accountant and a bit of a numbers geek. Yup, imagine that, a guy who spends all day looking at numbers goes home and thinks about them some more.

The tablet

Like most of you, I learned that zero was invented by the Arabs and spread to the West along with Arabic numerals as part of the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. However, a few years ago, I read a book called “Finding Zero: A Mathematicians Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers.” It was really interesting and the author stated that a tablet found in Cambodia has a zero that predates the Ottoman Empire by 500 years; based on carbon dating, it is the oldest zero ever found. The tablet is now in a museum in Phnom Penh. This is a link to an article that he wrote in Smithsonian magazine. I was fascinated and knew that I had to convince Sue we had to see it. (Can you imagine that conversation? Steven: I have a great idea for a vacation. Sue: Where? Steven: Cambodia to see the oldest known zero!!!!. Sue: Um, yeah. How about someplace interesting? I am completely on board for Cambodia and if a zero gets Steven there, so be it.) We had a quick look at what that trip would be like and decided that it wouldn’t be this year.

One quick point that I would like to mention that the Bodelian library at Oxford University has a manuscript called the Bakhshali that some people claim has the oldest known zero. However, this is disputed by some as the manuscript has a number of parts from different ages and the zero in the manuscript is being used as decimal place holder rather than a “true zero.” (Did you all follow that? There’s a difference between signifying nothing and holding a place in, say, the number 101.)

All of which leads me to my stolen vacation. I have been talking my friends (and really anyone who is willing to listen to me) about wanting to go to Southeast Asia, to see, among other things this tablet. So what happens? My friend sends the above mentioned email, with the photo gloating that he had reached the holy zero place before me!

I hate my friend.