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Could we use maths to talk to aliens? Professor Ian Stewart

Could we use maths to talk to aliens? Professor Ian Stewart from the Department of Mathematics discusses the possibilities with Tom Crawford on The Naked Scientists podcast.

ian stewart

“Maths has a kind of universality that communicating with language would be difficult,” says Professor Stewart.

“They don’t speak the language, they might not even hear sounds. Poetry probably isn’t a great idea; the works of Shakespeare would not particularly impress them.”

However, creatures from other planets may not follow the same laws of mathematics as humans:

“We’ve been brought up with this idea as maths as the kind of universal truth. It’s somehow truer than anything else because it’s all perfectly logical and it follows from basic principles and so forth.

“Two plus two has to be equal to four, once you’ve decided what two, four, plus, and equals mean and there’s no real way round that. And all of that’s very true so I doubt you’d find aliens who don’t think that two plus two equals four, but you might find aliens who don’t really understand two, or plus, or equals.”

For example, says Professor Stewart, we humans use counting as a basic form of maths, because we have always had objects to quantify and count – like sheep in a field, or the number of days in a month in the cycle of phases of the moon.

But the concept of counting might be different for “creatures that lived in a completely different environment where there aren’t any discrete objects - I’m thinking of creatures that maybe float around in the atmosphere of a gas giant planet.”

“You try to explain Pythagoras's theorem to one of these creatures and say – ‘take a triangle with corners at A, B, C’, and it puts down A. Then you say ‘now make another point B’ and it says ‘OK I’ve got point B, but A has disappeared - it’s blown away on the gas on the wind.’”

Regardless of these potential differences, if we did one day make contact with alien life forms, mathematics would still be a good place to start in communicating with them.

Professor Stewart argues that differences in how maths might work across the universe “wouldn’t be a barrier to communication, it would be something to puzzle out.”

There’s even the chance, he suggests, that we might understand maths that they don’t – and vice versa – and that we could swap knowledge:

“You could actually have interstellar trade in mathematical theorems.”

Click here to listen to the podcast in full on The Naked Scientists.

22 May 2017

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Click here to listen to the podcast in full on The Naked Scientists.