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Indian Bakhshali manuscript rewrites history of zero symbol

Carbon dating has shown the Bakhshali manuscript, which contains hundreds of zeros, to be centuries older than first thought. The ancient Buddhist text is now said to feature the oldest known use of the symbol.

According to a report in the New Scientist magazine on Thursday, researchers at the University of Oxford have made a discovery that completely rewrites the history of zero.

Carbon dating of an ancient Indian text called the Bakhshali Manuscript has revealed that the symbol was first described between 224 and 383 AD, 400 years earlier than originally thought.

The ancient Sanskrit text was discovered near the village of Bakhshali in modern-day Pakistan in 1881 and has been at Oxford's Bodleian library since 1902. According to the university's Marcus du Sautoy, the book of some 70 birch bark pages "seems to be a training manual for Buddhist monks."

It also contains a number of arithmetic problems, as well as geometry, algebra and quadratic equations.

Within its pages, the Bakhshali Manuscript contains hundreds of dots denoting zeroes. However, the text was originally thought to have originated between the 8th and 12th centuries, after the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta wrote the first text describing zero as a number in the year 628.

According to the Smithsonian, the Bakhshali text does not use zero as number in its own right like Brahmagupta does, but rather as "placeholders denoting the absence of value — as way to distinguish 1 from 10 and 100, for instance."

The use of zero is incredibly important in the development of mathematics, physics and technology. Zero has formed the base of everything from calculus to the first forms of computer programming.

The Bakhshali manuscript is set to go on display on October 4 at the Science Museum in London as part of a wider exhibit, "Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation."

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