Skip to Content

Is negative 0 a real thing?

Negative zero is a concept in mathematics that indicates a zero value with a negative sign. While it may seem counterintuitive that zero can be negative, negative zero has important theoretical implications and shows up in certain calculations.

What is negative zero?

Negative zero is written as -0. It has the same mathematical properties as positive zero, written as +0. Both +0 and -0 represent the number zero. However, they differ in how they are signed – positive zero is unsigned, while negative zero has a negative sign.

Some key properties of negative zero:

  • Any number multiplied by negative zero is negative zero. For example, 5 * -0 = -0.
  • Negative zero and positive zero are equal in numerical value. If you take the absolute value of -0, it is 0.
  • However, negative zero and positive zero are not exactly the same. They are different signed representations of zero.

When you write out zero, it is usually assumed to be positive. The negative sign is needed to indicate a negative zero value. Without the sign, there is no distinction between the two.

Origins of negative zero

The concept of negative zero has been around for centuries, originating with early mathematicians in India. The earliest recorded use was by Brahmagupta in the year 628 in his text Brāhmasphuṭasiddhānta. He established mathematical rules dealing with positive and negative numbers that included the idea of negative zero.

Later in the 12th century, the Indian mathematician Bhaskara also addressed mathematical operations with negative numbers and zeros, working with positive and negative zero values.

In the 17th century, European mathematicians like Descartes and Euler started to formally examine the theoretical implications of negative zero. The rules for mathematical operations like division were further developed to account for the ambiguity between positive and negative zero.

Why have a negative zero?

At first glance, negative zero may seem unnecessary. Zero is zero, right?

However, there are some situations where distinguishing between positive and negative zero is important:

  • Certain numerical calculations: When dividing a negative number by a very small positive number, the result heads towards negative infinity. As the divisor gets closer to zero, the result approaches negative zero.
  • Computer systems: In floating point arithmetic used by computers, signed zeros help preserve information about the sign of a very small number when rounding occurs.
  • Define direction for zero values: In math and physics, the sign of zero can define a directional orientation. For example, negative zero may indicate a direction pointing left or downward.
  • Avoid ambiguity: Explicitly using negative zero removes ambiguity from equations and makes the intention clearer.

Overall, having both positive and negative zero as options provides more flexibility in representing mathematical concepts. The negative sign carries meaning, even when applied to zero.

Examples of negative zero

Here are some examples that illustrate where negative zero shows up:

Division by zero approaching from negative side:

Calculation Result
-1 / 0.1 = -10
-1 / 0.01 = -100
-1 / 0.001 = -1000
-1 / 0.0001 = -10000
As divisor approaches 0, result approaches -∞

As the divisor decreases toward zero from the positive side, dividing by smaller and smaller values trends towards negative infinity. The limiting value is negative zero.

Floating point rounding:

Decimal Floating Point
0.5 0.5
0.05 0.05
0.005 0.005
-0.00005 -0.00005
-0.000005 -0

In floating point systems used by computers, very small negative values may get rounded to negative zero when precision is lost. The negative sign preserves the direction of the original tiny negative value.

Directional orientation:

Value Direction
+0 Facing right
-0 Facing left

Here the sign of zero defines a horizontal direction, either right or left. This concept applies in math, physics, and engineering to indicate positive or negative orientation.

Is negative zero necessary?

While negative zero serves useful purposes, some argue that strictly speaking, the concept is not necessary:

  • The IEEE 754 standard for representing floating point numbers does not require supporting negative zero.
  • In algebra and algebraic structures like fields, rings, and groups, the behavior of positive and negative zero is identical.
  • In set theory and topology, negative zero and positive zero are equivalent.
  • Some programming languages and computer architectures treat negative zero the same as positive zero.

However, most mathematicians and scientists believe consistently distinguishing negative zero has value:

  • It reinforces the integral role of sign in mathematics.
  • It eliminates ambiguity in representing directional zeros.
  • It enables defining division-by-zero limits approaching from negative side.
  • It provides additional flexibility for floating point systems.
  • It supports mathematical physics applications like spinors.

So while negative zero may not be strictly necessary, it facilitates deeper mathematical precision.

Is negative zero widely supported?

Negative zero is widely supported in:

  • Mathematical theory and proofs
  • Computer programming languages like Python, Java, Javascript
  • Software platforms like Microsoft Excel, Mathematica
  • Computer processors such as x86, ARM
  • IEEE 754 floating point standard (optionally)

However, some systems do not distinguish between positive and negative zero:

  • Early programming languages like FORTRAN, COBOL
  • Some graphing calculators
  • Set theory and topology – {0} == {-0}
  • IEEE 754 standard allows equating zeroes (optional)

So support varies. But overall, negative zero is widely accepted in math and most modern programming languages and software.

Does negative zero behave strangely?

Negative zero can produce some unexpected results:

  • Division by zero fails, but -1 / -0 = 1
  • -0 = 0 but -0
  • 1 / -0 = -∞ but also undefined

These oddities result from the split between the numerical value of negative zero (which is zero) and its sign (which is negative). They arise in special cases like division and inequality testing.

However, negative zero is well-defined and follows logical mathematical rules. While its behavior may seem strange at first glance, it is a consistent concept. These edge cases just illustrate the intricacy of the number system.

Does negative zero really exist?

Negative zero has a mathematical existence, but does it correspond to something real? There are a few perspectives:

  • In physics, there are no observable examples of truly negative zero phenomena.
  • However, some theories like string theory and quantum field theory make mathematical use of negative zero.
  • In mathematics, negative zero is an abstract object with formal definitions and proven properties.
  • In computer systems, negative zero can be represented and manipulated as a discrete entity.
  • Philosophically, mathematicians disagree on whether numbers need to be physically observable to exist.

Overall, mainstream math embraces negative zero as an important theoretical concept. But its ontological existence as part of the physical world is questionable. Negative zero lives primarily in the abstract realm of mathematics.


In summary:

  • Negative zero indicates a zero with a negative sign, contrasting positive zero.
  • It enables defining directions and limits approaching zero from below.
  • Negative zero assists with floating point rounding and removal of ambiguity.
  • It has historic origins in early Indian mathematics.
  • Most modern software platforms and languages support negative zero.
  • While not necessarily vital, negative zero facilitates deeper mathematical precision.

So in most practical settings, negative zero is treated as a real mathematical concept. While arguably not essential, negative zero finds use in specialized contexts. Its inclusion makes the real number system more comprehensive and robust.