Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Yet More of Zero

A little while ago, I posted on the myth that the church tried to ban zero (the posts are here and here). Here's the sequel.

The other day, Dick Teresi, the author of Lost Discoveries emailed me about an unrelated matter. I took the opportunity to ask him about his contention about zero being banned. He said that Charles Mann, author of 1491, had already asked him about this because a blogger had challenged it. That blogger was actually my friend Chris Price (whose own blog post is here) bouncing off my own questions about zero. Anyway, Teresi did the same research as me and came to the same conclusion, that the story is untrue. It seems everyone, including Charles Seife, originally got it from Tobias Dantzig's book Number which has no reference.

None of these authors should be blamed for repeating a story which seemed totally plausible to them. But the whole thing does illustrate how myths can get going even among science writers. A learned explanation of resistance to Arabic numbers in general (not just to zero) is given by Alexander Murray in chapter 7 of his Reason and Society in the Middle Ages. He shows that the concern was about fraud rather than anything religious, even if the Church had some hand in policing the honesty of merchants. More to the point, Arabic numbers were widely used in the Middle Ages and eventually won universal acceptance because they were just too useful to ignore.

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