One of the most fascinating things about mathematics is that it’s a universal language. Though there are many different tongues on the planet, there is one common form of mathematics. I have many exchange students in my classes, mostly from Europe and Asia. When they bring in their textbooks from their home country I can’t understand a single word, but I do understand the mathematical symbols.

Amazingly, mathematics may be universal in the truest sense of the word. And it is for this reason that the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence opted for binary representations of pi and prime numbers to broadcast our presence to anyone who might be listening. The reason is that intelligent life on other planets would be unlikely to understand the word ‘hello’ in any language. It’s much more likely that they would have a concept of pi, developed from working with circles; and, although their main mathematical system may well be different from our base-ten system (like the decimal system we use, made up of tenths, tens, hundreds and so on), they’re likely to understand the concept of binary (on/off or day/night).

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