A rather unfortunate effort in Discover by Amir Aczel, ‘How I Rediscovered the Oldest Zero in History’ more or less effaces his solid legwork with shoddy theorizing and ahistorical claims. Supported by the Sloan Foundation, Aczel (a popular science writer) went to Cambodia and tracked down the location of the Old Khmer inscription from Sambor, which is dated 605 in the Saka era (equivalent to 683 CE), which obviously contains a zero. While the Hindu-Arabic-Western numerical tradition is seen to emanate from India, all of our earliest unquestioned examples (the late 7th century ones) of the zero are from Southeast Asia, and Sambor is the earliest one. Because things have been rough in Cambodia for a long time, his work tracking it down and ensuring that it would be protected deserves a lot of credit.
If he had stopped there it would have been fine. Unfortunately, in an effort to bolster the importance of his claim, Aczel spends quite a lot of time justifying this as the first zero anywhere, ever, neglecting Babylonian and Maya zeroes from many centuries earlier. To do that he needs to whip out all sorts of after-the-fact justifications of why those zeroes don’t really count, because Babylonians didn’t use their zero as a pure placeholder, or because Maya zeroes, well actually he just ignores those until the comments (but don’t read the comments – really, folks, that is the first rule of the internet). Just for kicks, and regardless of the fact that it has nothing to do with zero, he starts off with a lengthy diatribe about how the Roman numerals are ‘clunky’ and ‘cumbersome’ and ‘inefficient’, which as long-time readers of this blog, or anyone who has read Numerical Notation, will know, is an utterly ridiculous, ahistorical claim that is divorced from how such numerals were actually used over two millennia.
I have come to terms with the fact that I will probably be spending the rest of my career pointing out that absolute judgements of the efficiency of numeral systems run the gamut from ‘missing the point’ to ‘completely ahistorical’ to ‘rabidly ethnocentric’. While Aczel’s piece is not the worst of the sort, it certainly doesn’t deserve much praise. Which is a shame, since that Sambor inscription really is the first known zero in the Indian tradition (to which our own Western numerals owe their origin) and it’s great that he’s been able to reconfirm its location in a politically perilous part of the world.