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<Mathematics: The only true universal language ⁄ >

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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.

Mathematics has been the language of science for thousands of years, and it is remarkably successful. In a famous essay, the great physicist Eugene Wigner wrote about the "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics". Most of us resonate with the perplexity expressed by Wigner, and also with Einstein's dictum that "the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible". We marvel at the fact that the universe is not anarchic - that atoms obey the same laws in distant galaxies as in the lab. The aliens would, like us, be astonished by the patterns in our shared cosmos and by the effectiveness of mathematics in describing those patterns.

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