Finding Zero by Amir Aczel
Early in the twentieth century, an inscription was discovered on a stone slab in the ruins of a seventh-century temple in a place called Sambor on Mekong, in Cambodia. The French archaeologist Georges Cœdès gave this inscription the identifier K-127. He was an expert philologist and translated the inscription from Old Khmer. It begins:
“Chaka parigraha 605 pankami roc…”
Translated: The Chaka era has reached 605 on the fifth day of the waning moon…
The zero in the number 605 is the earliest zero we have ever found.
Finding Zero is a clever documentary-style account of Prof Aczel’s journey to locate the oldest known relic containing the concept of zero (represented on K-127 as a dot). It reads like a journal written in first-person narrative, taking account of hotel room experiences, unfruitful cab rides with a driver who was not an actual taxi driver and did not speak a word of English (except the word “hotel”), and having to pay a customs official $200 cash for some bogus passport red tape.
Particularly amusing was the comparison to Indiana Jones having a priceless and hard-earned artefact snatched away from him at the last minute; when Aczel finally found K-127 after years of effort, he was so elated he shared this find with 2 archaeologists who just happened to be seeking items for their restoration classroom and wanted to teach their students how to restore something valuable. Eventually Aczel was able to convince officials this item was better off in a museum, but the sense of euphoria from the discovery followed by the feeling of extreme loss was well conveyed in Aczel’s personal account.
A little dry at times with indiscriminate details of many travel experiences, overall the book was enjoyable to read, and was one of Prof Aczel’s less-scientific writings; very few equations appear in this one. It was interesting to see how his early interest in numbers and mathematics was cultivated in his youth while travelling on a ship with his father as captain (catapulted by a forbidden under-aged adventure into a casino where numbers rule the world). Anyone who shares an interest in the history of numbers and mathematics will enjoy reading this one.