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Week 18: 8 January 2012

Marcus du Sautoy

Professor of Mathematics and Public Understanding of Science, Oxford

A Universal Language

Citizens of Nowhereisland.

It is with some presumption that I address you in my mother tongue of English for such a decision already brings with it so much cultural baggage, connotations, heritage and history. The citizens of Nowhereisland will no doubt have representatives from many corners of the tower of Babel.

And so Nowhereisland will be faced with a decision about language which will play an essential role in defining its identity. Of the 6909 languages that are spoken across the globe, English has been adopted as the universal language for the project. But I would like to make a plea for a second language for Nowhereisland that transcends cultural and national boundaries and truly deserves to be called universal.

Mathematics, the language of science, has the power to unite and bind a community in a way that other languages necessarily divide. I have travelled the world sharing my mathematical stories with my tribe. From Novosibirsk to Okinawa, from Jerusalem to Cochin as soon as I am at a blackboard and I chalk up my mathematical discoveries I can sense the recognition and understanding of an audience that I share little in common with outside our pursuit of mathematical truth.

As many science fiction writers have discovered, if the human race encounters alien life there is a problem about how we will communicate. Given that music, art and stories are so different on the other side of the globe let alone universe, it is highly unlikely that these disciplines will offer common ground. Even the other sciences don’t guarantee a common bond. There might be a different chemistry, biology even physics on the other side of the universe. But the one thing that is truly universal is mathematics. 317 will be a prime number wherever you come from in the universe.

This is the reason the great scientist Carl Sagan used prime numbers in his novel Contact as the language with which his aliens greet the human race. The prime number pulse 2,3,5,7,11,13,17,… cannot be some random noise permeating the cosmos. The mathematical structure behind these numbers is the drumbeat of a civilization trying to make contact.

While Carl Sagan’s novel is fiction, humans have already been using the primes as the key to encoding a message that was beamed out across space in 1974 from the Arecibo radio telescope towards the star cluster M13, chosen as the destination for this message due to the huge number of stars at the heart of this cluster. The signal consists of 1679 black or white pixels. By spotting that 1679=23x73 and arranging the pixels in a rectangle with these prime number dimensions the message from earth emerges.

But a language is impotent unless it has the power to express ideas. And this is the strength of the language of mathematics. Indeed mathematics is how we will direct those who wish to visit this emerging nation. The whereabouts of Nowhereisland at any point in time can be read off by the two numbers that define its longitude and latitude. But mathematics won’t just be helpful in navigating Nowhereisland’s physical environment but also its political one too.

Because as Nowhereisland navigates the turbulent waters that lie ahead, mathematics will prove to be the most powerful tool to make predictions of what we might expect to find beyond the present. Mathematics is the ultimate fortune teller. Understanding the fate of the planet on which Nowhereisland sails, whether it is the effects of climate, the impact of a fast spreading pandemic or objects crashing into the planet from outerspace, mathematics is the key to help us both predict and affect our fate.

So not only will mathematics act as a common language to bind the community of Nowhereisland, it also offers the tools to take control and create a sustainable and healthy environment for the citizens of this emerging nation.

The Arecibo Message:

It is interesting that even though the numbers themselves are universal the way the human race has depicted these numbers is as much a mathematical tower of Babel as the 6909 languages that are currently spoken across the globe.

Here are prime numbers written in different scripts around the world. How many can you identify? Scroll down the page for the answers. Each has a different story to tell about the culture they originate from. To find out about these stories check out The Number Mysteries (Fourth Estate).

(a) What prime is this?

(b) What prime is this?


(c) What prime is this?

(d) What prime is this?


(e) What prime is this?





(a) 200201 in Egyptian Hieroglyphs

(b) 71 in Babylonian cuneiform

(c) 17 in Mayan script

(d) 13 in Hebrew script

(e) 23 in Chinese script

Marcus du Sautoy

Marcus du Sautoy is the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of New College. In 2001 he won the prestigious Berwick Prize of the London Mathematical Society awarded every two years to reward the best mathematical research made by a mathematician under 40. In 2009 he was awarded the Royal Society’s Faraday Prize, the UK’s premier award for excellence in communicating science. He writes for the Times, Daily Telegraph, Independent and the Guardian and is frequently asked for comment on BBC radio and television. He has written and presented a wide range of radio and television programmes including: a four part landmark TV series for the BBC called The Story of Maths, a ten part series for BBC Radio 4 called A Short History of Mathematics and a one hour documentary for BBC4 and BBC2 based on his book The Music of the Primes.

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Nowhereisland is a Situations project led by artist Alex Hartley, one of 12 Artist Taking the Lead projects for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad funded by Arts Council England. We also gratefully acknowledge the support of the University of the West of England, Bristol; Bloomberg; Nicky Wilson Jupiter Artland; the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Royal Norwegian Embassy and Yellowbrick Tracking.

Identity designed by Fraser Muggeridge studio and Wolfram Wiedner, website by Wolfram Wiedner.