Anil Ramdas: Give them back the zero

January 2005 -

I used to be really bad at maths. To be honest, in my second year of secondary school in Surinam I was bad at every subject - I believe I got a one out of ten for Spanish on my school report. It really should have been a zero, the Spanish teacher, being her usual amiable self, explained to my parents at the parents' evening. My parents did not pay any attention because they were involved in divorce procedures. So you see: divorce is not necessarily bad for children.

In the years that followed my marks for most subjects went up, except my marks for maths. ‘You know what the problem is?’ my maths teacher said in the fifth year, ‘You can’t think’. You have to realize pedagogical views are different in the tropics. But I quite liked it: not being able to think. I saw myself as an unthinking romantic, dreaming of a grand and compelling life in the faraway motherland.

At the same time, that was precisely the problem. If you wanted to reach the faraway motherland, you had to pass your maths exam. Without maths you couldn’t go to university, and so you couldn’t go to Holland. The maths exam was really an early predecessor of the naturalization exam and it was much harder. Nowadays you only need to know two Dutch sentences: "Where is the post office?" or: "How much is the repatriation grant?" In the past you had to learn all about tangent, sine and cosine.

Without maths I was doomed to stay in the tropics forever. I was tortured by fear and kept thinking about the fact that I couldn't think. I need private tuition, I yelled at my mother, extra maths lessons.

The man who was my private maths tutor had me read an article about the history of the zero first. A very long time ago, people were able to count and even perform some basic calculations, but it wasn't algebra yet. Going from five horses, five apples, to five 'things', and finally to the more abstract notion of five is an enormous mental leap. Five. Five what? Just five. They had no idea of the concept, the idea of five - five not followed by a concrete object.

The concept of 5 was unknown, not to mention -5. It would take another few millennia before people could understand -5, a step that could only be made once they grasped the zero. My appetite for maths was definitely aroused.

Today we know that we cannot function without the zero. Without the zero we wouldn't have computer language. We would have profit, but we wouldn’t have loss and so we wouldn't have capitalism either. In short: our existence as we know it is impossible without the zero.

Where does the zero come from? From India. The zero was first found somewhere near Delhi. A priest must have tried to calculate how many flowers he needed to plant to make fifty floral wreaths for the fifty statues of gods in the temple. And the priest wrote fifty on a clay tablet by jotting down a five and a zero - a circle. Just like today.

Elsewhere in India there were scholars who already used the zero more consciously in calculations such as five plus zero equals five. That was an amazing discovery. This very zero travelled east to China and west to the Arabs and even all the way to Europe and before long we had the computer and the microwave.

It will probably be clear why I’m telling you this story. Lately there have been calls for a distinction between civilisations. Some even want to separate civilisations from each other altogether – the Western and non-Western civilisations to start with. Islamic and Christian civilizations to be more precise. This Clash of Civilisations already resulted in the death of one person in Amsterdam, although I have to admit that’s a very dignified explanation of last Tuesday’s event (the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an islamic fundamentalist - ed.).

But we have to be consistent. If civilisations can be compared with billiard balls bouncing off against one another, we have to keep the billiard balls pure: in colour, brilliance and shape. If not, the game can’t be played. I can’t imagine a billiard table containing egg-shaped balls. It wouldn’t work.

Anyway, if there is more than one civilisation, then we would have to start giving back everybody their fair share at some point. Because even if I nicked your pen ten years ago, honesty compels I give it back to you. If we as humanity would be dead honest, Western people would be given back their penicillin, the American Indians would keep their potato and the people of India would happily create floral wreaths with their zero.

We would end up somewhere in the Middle Ages, worse even: a thousand years earlier than that. We would live as savages in caves searching the woods and plains for edible fruits and leaves. We would die from bacterial infections by dozens and we would never be able to simply heat up a deep-frozen convenience meal in a microwave.

But that's the risk we have to take. The people of India have their floral wreaths, the American Indians have their potatoes, and the West, well, they wouldn’t be able to dosage the penicillin without proper understanding of the zero anyway, so their penicillin would be useless. Nor would they have missiles and nuclear bombs, which is a reassuring thought.

This is a caricature of human history of course. Some of what I have just said isn’t even true, because there are people who claim that the Maya Indians from South America invented the zero earlier and there are Buddhists who could swear that the great Buddha came up with the zero.

I couldn’t care less.

Civilisation is cross-fertilization. What’s invented by humanity belongs to us all. I will put it bluntly: when we talk about civilizations – plural – we are lost. There is only one civilization, and that is the universal, human civilization. If the word civilization can be used in plural, the word humanity should also have a plural. And humanities, that’s absurd. It’s humanity, everyone, humanity. Singular.

This column was published on 8 November 2004 in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.