Tuesday, February 17, 2009
  Math the universal language? Nope

An article in the latest New Superstitionist puts forth an old idea, common in science fact and science fiction for decades.

If we ever establish contact with intelligent aliens living on a planet around a distant star, we would expect some problems communicating with them. As we are many light years away, our signals would take many years to reach them, so there would be no scope for snappy repartee. There could be an IQ gap and the aliens might be built from quite different chemistry.

Yet there would be much common ground too. They would be made of similar atoms to us. They could trace their origins back to the big bang 13.7 billion years ago, and they would share with us the universe's future. However, the surest common culture would be mathematics.


The article goes on to discuss which formulas and theories would be good candidates for interplanetary chit-chat.


Polistra begs to differ. The supposed "universality" of math is a myth.

Our new Facebook Friends on Alpha Centauri could have the technology to text us, while knowing very little math. Let's look at the start of electrical communication on Earth. Sam Morse was an artist, not a mathematician, and his telegraph was built by trial and error. Alex Bell was a speech teacher with a deep visual comprehension of wave action. Early radio sets (spark-gap transmitters, cat-whisker detectors) were also built without fancy math, though a certain amount of measurement was important for meaningful testing. You'd need to remember, for instance, that a 50-foot antenna worked better than a 51-foot antenna.

Even without trying to imagine an alien mind, it's easy to see how we Earthlings could have developed a communication system able to reach distant planets, all without any math beyond measurement. It would have required vastly more work by a huge number of workers; it would require ant-like organization, but we could have done it.



= = = = =

An even dumber assumption in the same paragraph:

"They could trace their origins back to the big bang 13.7 billion years ago"

Only a few physicists on Earth claim with certainty that our origin traces back to the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. The vast majority of Earthlings believe we were created by some form of God. So the Big Bang is hardly universal among Earthlings let alone ET's; and it's no more scientific than Genesis, since neither theory can be verified or falsified by experiment. Most of us muddle along through life, even doing all sorts of higher science and mathematics, without thinking about the whole question. The Big Bang is just an irrelevant and unnecessary bit of mental masturbation which apparently gives a Bang to those few physicists.

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Polistra was named after the original townsite of Manhattan (the one in Kansas). When I was growing up in Manhattan, I spent a lot of time exploring by foot, bike, and car. I discovered the ruins of an old mill along Wildcat Creek, and decided (inaccurately) that it was the remains of the original site of Polistra. Accurate or not, I've always liked the name, with its echoes of Poland (an under-appreciated friend of freedom) and stars. ==== The title icon is explained here. ==== Switchover: This 2007 entry marks a sharp change in worldview from neocon to pure populist. ===== The long illustrated story of Polistra's Dream is a time-travel fable, attempting to answer the dangerous revision of New Deal history propagated by Amity Shlaes. The Dream has 8 episodes, linked in a chain from the first. This entry explains the Shlaes connection.

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