The question is, is this book about numbers or is this a travel book? Many would mistake the late Amir Aczel’s Finding Zero for a travel book, because it is a fascinating story of a personal quest that starts with shipboard casinos, a guide called Laci who turns out to be a smuggler while being a maths wiz too and life on board an Israeli cruiser sailing down the Mediterranean. Of course, at its heart, it is the search for the origin of zero, the figure which dictates place values in today’s numbers game. Whether it is the decimal system or the binary code, it is impossible to imagine the modern day world without it.
Learning Greek and Roman numbers as a child, Aczel moves on to locate the zero, which did not exist in the European mathematical world. According to historians, zero originated in Arabia—this was later modified to spread further East to India, a tenet firmly resisted by colonial mathematicians, who insisted that Oriental mathematics was far inferior. Zero did not exist in the European number system till the 13th century. Aczel, however, was convinced that it was an older concept, and travels through MesoAmerica and Babylon before determinedly heading to India, following the trail of something read in a book.
Where other tourists visited Khajuraho in search of the Kama Sutra, Aczel combed the groups of temples, looking for a magic square. He finally found it, bracketed, unsurprisingly, by a sexual sculpture, but with the Hindi number 10 easily decipherable. However, that was not the oldest reference to zero in India. The oldest was to be found at the Chaturbhuja (or four-armed Vishnu) temple in Gwalior, in a reference to a grant of land 270 hastas (or cubits, each cubit being approximately fingertip to elbow) long, an inscription dating from 876 AD. Alas, for Aczel, that proved nothing, since the date coincided with the Baghdad Caliphate and merely strengthened theories that the zero in fact came from Arabia.
What fascinated him about the figure was the Buddhist concept of ‘shunyata’—it stood for something that was also nothing—a paradox too philosophical, he felt, for Europeans to comprehend. Many might feel that this is unfair to the Pythagorean number system, which had its own elaborate mysticism to it, but the issue remains much debated. Add to that the fact that Nagarjuna and mysticism notwithstanding, the Gwalior inscription records a very practical reference to zero—in fact, something as humdrum as a land record, which has nothing philosophical about it.
However, Aczel was determined to come to some conclusion in his quest and having discovered a translation by the French archaeologist George Coedes, which contained the date 605, an equivalent of 653 AD, he decides to track it down. His travels take him to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, at every halt decoding a series of cryptic, mathematical clues. Ultimately, he traces what he is looking for to an antiquities dump near Angkor Vat—certainly a dramatic ending to the book.
Whether Aczel actually found zero or not is irrelevant. What matters is his determination to solve a puzzle, his energetic intellect, and the way he does it in a very engrossing, almost Indiana Jones fashion. No one will be too surprised to discover that one of the temples he visits was the location for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Sadly too, this is the last of his mathematical meanderings. Aczel passed away in 2015, aged 65.