Importance of zero Significance of zero zero in Mathematics Importance of zero in Mathematics

Mathematics remains the language that describes the numerical happenings of the universe and mathematicians had, since the dawn of humanity, tried to quantify the universe’s laws and phenomenon. Imagine nothingness, and we will think of vacuum and empty space. A mathematician would, however, conceived a number to represent that very property.

Zilch, nil, naught, zero

Zero is the precedence to many situations that liken the first step as one. As such, the five laws of thermodynamics, inclusive of the zeroth law, call for the need of zero, as the zeroth law of thermodynamics states an essentially fundamental property of heat. This property is intrinsically existent and may be neglected by laymen. Scientists, however, emphasised on its existence with the law, adding a more fundamental quality by numbering the law as zeroth. The absolute scale, also known as the Kelvin scale, assigns a value of zero Kelvin for an absolute zero temperature, which is the minimal temperature any substance on Earth can attain.

Zero is the only number in the number line without a polarity, that is to say, no positivity or negativity. This is particularly useful in expressing neutral concepts in mathematical ideas. As such, the use of this number describes the maximum and minimum values of a graph. This very application satisfies the programmed goal of human beings, which is to obtain optimisation. Engineering relies heavily on differential calculus, a branch in mathematics that provides the tools for optimisation. The success in engineering is stemmed from the success of the number zero.

This unique number stations itself in virtually every numeral system imaginable. One of the most economically critical systems is the binary numbering system. This system utilises only the numbers 0 and 1, and is able to simulate the state of switches, namely off and on. Combining millions of transistors (semiconductor switches) will only mean that an astronomical number of combinations results. Millions of processes in the modern digital products are reliant of the binary system. One thing to note is that it is possible to assign 1 and 2, or perhaps 2 or 3, to represent the state of switching. The effect, however, is not as effective as 0, as this number is defined as nothingness, or null, which aptly represents the OFF state of a switch. Dedicated to eliminating any further confusion between ON and OFF, and their assigned numbers, 0 shares an equal amount of credit with 1 in one of human’s greatest invention of all, the computer.

The vastness of application of this number is boundless; however, it has its own limitations. For example, philosophers are questioning whether counting should start from zero or one. On one side of the argument states that counting should start from zero because zero is included in the number line, the other side of the argument states that counting should start from one, since zero itself is just a concept, not a manifestation of reality.

Last but not least, the beauty of this number is alluring, perennially inspires the eager young minds of society and baffles many of the curious likes of many mathematical pursuits. It is important to celebrate its significance in the advance of mathematics, and more importantly, the advance of humanity.

Numbers rule the universe. – Pythagoras


Prof Hossein Arsham, 2009, Zero Saga [online]. Available from: [Accessed 11 August 2009]

Anglin W., Mathematics: A Concise History and Philosophy, Springer-Verlag, 1994.