Maths From An Extra Terrestrial Civilization - What Could It Be Like - And Would We Understand It?
    By Robert Walker | June 25th 2014 02:49 AM | 14 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    Modern maths has a "Heath Robinson" type approach - at least philosophically -  with its many sizes of infinity and logical paradoxes. Would this be the same for ETs? Also, what if they experience time and space differently from us? Perhaps they can only reason using flashes of insight? 

    Or, perhaps topology is easy, but counting, for them, is an advanced concept few understand? Or perhaps they use quantum logic or some other logic we haven't thought of yet? Or, might they see everything as fractals?

    With no experience of ET mathematicians, we haven't got much to go on. But, let's take a look at a few of the ways ET maths could take different approaches from ours, or be hard for us to understand.


    This is an area of maths (use of sets or infinity or both) - that for us is full of paradoxes - such as Russell's paradox, various Cantor's paradoxes, the Banach Tarski paradox etc. It's lead to much debate and puzzlement over the century or so.

    Mathematicians and philosophers have many different ideas about it here on Earth,so it's easy to imagine that ETs would also.

    Some say the paradoxes have been solved. 
    Yes our maths is elegant in a way, and if you follow the rules carefully you don't get any contradictions (at least as far as we know). However, if you look at those rules from a philosophically unattached standpoint you may get a different impression. 

    Modern set theory with 

    • The puzzling impossibility of counting many fundamental things in mathematics - as in - ordering them into an unending list.

      Yet everything "interesting" can be counted. Ratios, finite decimals, square roots, more generally, solutions to polynomial and trig equations - everything like that can be counted easily. 

      If you haven't come across this before, see Impossibility of counting most mathematical objects by Robert Walker (just a short summary I did, linking to the material on the subject).

      Our maths is so "Heath Robinson" at least from a philosophical point of view, why this need to include so many things you never need in everyday mathematical life? It's a bit like this potato peeling machine:

      Ingenious maybe, beautiful even if you like such things - but why go to all that trouble to peel the potatoes?

      We have all this apparatus of higher orders of infinity, just to include a whole bunch of obscure numbers that nobody ever needs as working mathematicians. That is to say - they never need any of them as individual numbers, just need to know, for logical reasons only, that all those uncountably many things exist. 

      Why? It seems so clumsy. 

      It is even stranger when you find out about the Löwenheim and Skolem paradox -  that if somehow "behind the scenes", you replace all those uncountable infinities by other (rather intricate) finite and countable things, all the same results still hold true about them.

      That is - so long as the maths is expressible in a straightforward way using a finite number of symbols and proofs are easy to verify - "first order" maths

      Techy detail for logicians:  - you can avoid the paradox, technically, with a "second order" formal language with uncountably many distinct symbols. Which doesn't really solve the philosophical issue of course.

      Any human or ET mathematician will only be able to distinguish a (small) finite number of symbols from each other. It's a general issue for any higher-order logic - it needs a proof theory before mathematicians can use it in practice - and when you do that, the paradox surfaces again. Second-order logic - metalogical results
      An ET could reinterpret our maths in this way and their theorems would match ours in every detail.

      • Would ETs follow the usual approach of human mathematicians - that most numbers and mathematical entities can't be counted? 
      • Or take other views on infinity like some human mathematicians - perhaps very practical "constructive" in their approach to maths for instance, so the question doesn't arise (more on that later)?
      • Or - reinterpret all our maths in some complex abstract way, as in the Löwenheim and Skolem paradox  - but for them it's not a paradox, just how they think about maths?
      • Or does the question just not arise for them for some other reason we haven't thought of yet, or have some other meaning for them? 
      • Or, like us, have lots of points of view on the subject? An unending philosophical debate that's gone on for millions of years?
      • Could they have some other take on the whole question which we haven't thought of?

    • Continuum hypothesis - why does our maths say that we can never know whether or not there are other orders of infinity between the number of ratios or whole numbers, and the number of infinite decimals like pi?
    • Axiom of choice - given infinitely many pairs of shoes, it is easy to choose one of each - for instance choose the left hand shoe each time. 

      But for indistinguishable socks - is it possible to choose one from each pair?

      Howard Rheingold painted Shoes (photo by Hoi Ito)

      When you have a mathematical equivalent of infinitely many pairs of shoes, there is no problem picking out one of each. It's easy, for instance, just choose the left one out of each pair.

      But it gets far harder to cope with the mathematical equivalents of infinitely many pairs of socks.

      That's because they are identical to each other (you can swap your left and right socks and not notice that anything has changed). Our maths doesn't let us pick out one of each - unless we add in an extra axiom, the axiom of choice. 

      It seems an obvious axiom, innocuous even - that if you have infinitely many pairs, you can choose a singleton from each one. However, it turns out that if you add it in, this leads - not to inconsistencies quite - but to results so strange that they seem paradoxical to human minds. 

      For instance, one of many famous puzzling consequences - it lets you split a sphere into a small number of geometrical "pieces" - and combine them together to make two spheres of same volume as the original - without any gaps.


      Banach–Tarski paradox

      If you accept it, you end up with maths that is more powerful - but let's you prove these unintuitive results such as, that it's possible to dissect a sphere geometrically into a small number of "pieces" (discontinuous but "rigid") and re-assemble it to make two spheres of the same volume, without gaps.

      As another example - it lets you fill 3D space entirely with radius 1 circles - with none of them intersecting, yet no gaps, a sort of 3D space filling chain mail. Again most would find that paradoxical.
      Why does this axiom keep cropping up in Maths - and should we use it - or is it too powerful since it lets us prove paradoxical seeming results?

      Why does it matter, since in practice nobody ever is able to choose an infinite number of anythings in the real world? Nobody ever has an infinite number of pairs of socks, or of anything. So why do mathematicians need to think so much about their mathematical equivalents?

      Would ETs use the axiom of choice? If so, what do they make of its paradoxical results? Or is it not even an issue for them for some reason?

    • The arbitrary rules we use to keep maths consistent.

      For instance in one of the most popular ways of creating a logical foundations for maths, ZF, large sets are called "classes" and a class can't be a member of a set. 

      There is no good mathematical reason for this. It is just a "kludge" - we have to do it or we end up with an inconsistent theory.

      You do it just because, if you don't  keep to the rules that have been worked out and just "follow your intuitions" about sets you end up with contradictory results and pardoxes. Genuine unresolvable paradoxes.

      The most famous one, Russell's paradox (more about this later in this page).
    The whole thing is really a bit of a kludge viewed somewhat dispassionately with your philosopher's hat on rather than with your mathematician's hat on.

    It seems to work okay and is beautiful in its way. But is this really the best that we can do? And whether or not - is it such an obvious way of proceeding that ETs would have to end up with the same system, with all the same mathematical and philosophical ideas as ourselves?

    I think it is possible that some ET mathematicians might have found some other solution or solutions.

    Which might be better than ours, or worse, or just different. But it would be really interesting to learn - if 

    • ET maths is generally similar to ours in its analysis of infinity, as well as paradoxes like Russell's paradox
    • Or if there are many wildly different ways of doing it and we've only got one of them
    • Or if perhaps we are the odd ones out with a clumsy system because somehow as humans we have missed seeing some really simple ideas that seem obvious to most intelligent ETs.
    • Or even, cant rule this possibility out also, that amongst all these ideas, somewhere, we have some unique insight into it ourselves that other ETs have missed.


    Godel's theorem also is quite a strange result - especially if understood in the context of Hilbert's program to provide a firm foundation for maths  which failed.

    Godel showed that you can't ever prove that maths is consistent - that if you ever prove that it is consistent then you know that you have done something wrong because that means it is inconsistent.

    They might well have a different slant on Godel's theorem I think  it might mean something different to them or might have other results there we haven't thought of.


    They might know that some of our axiom systems are actually inconsistent.

    They might also use Paraconsistent logic far more extensively than we do and not be bothered about inconsistencies in the way we do.

    'I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast'5.

    Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there
    Lewis Carroll - the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass.

    They might work happily with systems of mathematics in which a statement and its negation are both provable. In normal logic, then anything follows from a contradiction so such theories are useless - but in paraconsistent logic, then the same doesn't apply and you can work fine with both a statement and it's negation simultaneously.


    Here an infinitesimal is a quantity that is non zero, and yet smaller than the reciprocal of any normal positive whole number. So smaller than 1/1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, ... 1/1000, 1/10^10 - smaller than any of those - but non zero. It's hard to make this idea consistent. 

    But it is also hard to make the ideas of convergent sequences consistent also - and the "epsilon delta" method more usually used in calculus historically took several centuries to develop. The fundamental idea goes back to Bolzano in 1817, the (ε, δ)-definition of limit

    I won't go into how it works (you can check out the  (ε, δ)-definition of limit ) - but if you've done calculus rigorously, e.g. at university, you've probably seen this diagram. 

    It took a lot of effort by mathematicians before they had a reasonably rigorous way of doing calculus - and then even so, during the rest of the nineteenth century they found many "wild cases" bizarre things they found really hard to study - which lead eventually to Cantor's ideas and to the paradoxes we've already met, in the late C19 and early C20.

    Robinson showed that you can get the same calculus results with infinitesimals as with ordinary convergent sequences. His proofs are, generally, simpler and more elegant also (once you have the infinitesimals).

    Vopenka in Prague then developed an "Alternative Set Theory" which starts maths on a different basis as regards ideas of infinity. With his ideas, then the idea of an infinitesimal is far easier to make consistent - and it becomes more natural as a way to develop calculus than the idea of a  convergent sequence, and gives a way you could develop maths from scratch where you might get the infinitesimal type theorems proved before the convergent sequence theorems.

    So - that might just be an eccentric approach everywhere in the galaxy. 

    Or could be that some ETs take that as their basis for maths and see our approach as eccentric. They might prove calculus results with infinitesimals - and treat the "epsilon delta" method as an unusual alternative few use in practice - the reverse of our maths society.

    That's just a hint but enough of a hint to show that there can be other ways of looking at it. If they had gradually developed AST back in their equivalent of our C19 and C20 instead of ZF - then they might find our ZF strange. 

    AST is unlikely to become the basis of maths now, and it is not Vopenka's objective to do that as far as I know. But - if it came first before ZF, in an ET civilizations mathematics, who knows?


    Our present day ideas could date back to some historical incident way way back in maths history. E..g. perhaps if we had favoured the Leibnitz approach to calculus more, instead of the Newtonian one - both were incomplete and had flaws in them - but Leibnitz thought much more in terms of something rather like modern infinitesimals - maybe we'd have ended up with something more like AST when it finally got formalized better.
    There are other ideas around that could be used as a basis also - just mentioning AST as one of many alternative foundational maths ideas.


    ETs could also be pure Finitist or Intuitionist in their reasoning. If so they might make no use of different orders of infinity at all. This deals with many but not all of the puzzling features of modern maths.

    They still would have some set theory paradoxes such as Russell's paradox - intuitionistic or finitist maths doesn't get around that.

    See Intuitionism and infinity


    They might do mathematical deduction in a different way from us.

    Actually human mathematicians have explored many methods of logical deduction, see:

    Perhaps ETs have come up with other methods of logical deduction we haven't thought of yet.


    This is worth describing in detail because it uses such simple ideas, you'd think that just about all ETs would encounter it in their reasoning.

    I like the way this is presented in wikipedia, so will just quote from the article on Russell's paradox

    "Let us call a set "abnormal" if it is a member of itself, and "normal" otherwise. For example, take the set of all squares in the plane. That set is not itself a square, and therefore is not a member of the set of all squares. So it is "normal". On the other hand, if we take the complementary set that contains all non-squares, that set is itself not a square and so should be one of its own members. It is "abnormal".

    Now we consider the set of all normal sets, R. Determining whether R is normal or abnormal is impossible: if R were a normal set, it would be contained in the set of normal sets (itself), and therefore be abnormal; and if R were abnormal, it would not be contained in the set of all normal sets (itself), and therefore be normal. This leads to the conclusion that R is neither normal nor abnormal: Russell's paradox."

    As soon as you start thinking in terms of abstract concepts, and idea  of a set, or collection of things - then Russell's paradox is not far away. 

    Human mathematicians didn't spot this paradox in our thinking until 1901. Though it's closely related to the ancient Epimenides paradox

    There's no resolution to it, except to limit our reasoning to prevent it happening, with no really good mathematical basis for doing that.

    Is it possible that some ETs don't encounter Russell's paradox - if so - why, and how do they reason? Or do encounter it but for some reason don't find it paradoxical? Or is it a paradox for all ET mathematicians?


    More radically than that - ETs might not necessarily have a sense of linear time like us. We have a clear sense of past, present and future. And know exactly where we are in that time stream. But some ETs might live in a world where hardly anything changes from day to day. So is no need to remember when things happened but may be very important to know where they happened.

    If so they might have a way of seeing the world that is spatially based - with linearly ordered time an abstract concept they find really hard to grasp. I can imagine e.g. if they live in the oceans beneath the surface of an icy moon like Europa, no idea that the rest of the universe exists, no seasons, nothing except gradients of temperature, and chemical gradients etc. They might have long term memory but no short term memory - as we understand their world.

    After all in special relativity then time does play a rather strange role. It's not as easy to understand in a single ordered time stream. 

    Perhaps there are other ways of thinking about the universe that start from a more spatial basis - not that they have no idea of time at all - but - that they don't order it in a strictly linear way. What other ways of ordering it, they might have, I don't know. 


    Or - do use linear time but are totally unable to experience it directly so is a strange very abstract concept - while at the same time maybe find some other ideas, e.g. quantum mechanics type ideas easier to understand.

    Maybe think in terms of superpositions of many states at once - and collapsing of uncertainties. Maybe their maths then would somehow reflect that - they would know what a linear ordering is - but would not be like us where nearly all the most interesting mathematical spaces are based on notions of distance and linear orderings along lines - maybe they don't have geometry either as we have it but in some other form not based on Euclid's axioms.


    And indeed (this is not necessarily the same ETS - these maybe - entities that live as gas clouds, or films like stromatolites, colonies of microbes that merge and separate and form greater or less intelligence depending how many individual microbes involved - sort of like sponges, can strain them through a sieve and they come together again as if nothing happened) - they could go as fundamental as different ideas about counting.

    For creatures like that, topology could be fundamental to their maths, everything continuous, no discrete shapes. They might think naturally in terms of open and closed sets (regions with or without a boundary) - or some other topological primitives we haven't thought of yet.

    Advance complex theorems in topology would be child's play to them like 1 2 3, while counting would be an incredibly abstract idea they could formulate mathematically but perhaps find hard to grasp.


    Perhaps they can't make long deductions like we do. If they have hardly any time ordered short term memory - remember everything perfectly if they want to but not able to order it in time for more than a few seconds - then the very idea of chains of logical deduction may be alien to them, for anything more than a few deduction steps.

    Instead they could rely extensively on seeing things at a glance. For instance with small numbers of things, we have the ability to see how many there are at a glance, without need to count them as 1, 2, 3.

    See Subitizing

    When you are familiar with geometry, you can often see geometrical theorems at a glance.

    If you are used to geometrical ideas, you may be able to see at a glance that both squares have the same total area, and that therefore the two white squares at the right add up to the same total area as the single white square to the left, and see also that this relationship between the area of the square on the diagonal and the square on the two shorter sides holds for any right angle triangle. This is the Pythagorean theorem

    Mathematicians often talk about suddenly seeing a proof of a theorem at a glance. Here is Professor Roger Penrose talking about one such moment:

    A colleague (Ivor Robinson) had been visiting from the USA and he was engaging me in voluble conversation on a quite different topic as we walked down the street approaching my office in Birkbeck College in London. The conversation stopped momentarily as we crossed a side road, and resumed again at the other side. Evidently, during those few moments, an idea occurred to me, but then the ensuing conversation blotted it from my mind!

    Later in the day, after my colleague had left, I returned to my office. I remember having an odd feeling of elation that I could not account for. I began going through in my mind all the various things that had happened to me during the day, in an attempt to find what it was that had caused this elation. After eliminating numerous inadequate possibilities, I finally brought to mind the thought that I had had while crossing the street- a thought which had momentarily elated me by providing the solution to the problem that had been milling around at the back of my head! Apparently, it was the needed criterion that I subsequently called a ‘trapped surface’ and then it did not take me long to form the outline of a proof of the theorem that I had been looking for.  Even so, it was some while before the proof was formulated in a completely rigorous way, but the idea that I had had while crossing the street had been the key.  

    The Emperor's New Mind
    What if the ETs can only do mathematics in that way - as sudden moments of insight?

    If they also have topology as fundamental - things like intersection of sets and various distinctions of types of sets and how they can interact - their theorems might not use straight lines and circles.

    Instead, maybe their advanced theorems consist of a huge Jackson Pollock type painting of blotches which interact in complex ways - which they can see at a glance but for us is almost impossible to understand.

    Perhaps an ET might draw something like this, show it to us and say "This is the maths we use for constructing our spaceships"  - and expect us to understand at a glance - and have no other way of presenting their maths.

     Jackson Pollock - biography, paintings, quotes of Jackson Pollock

    Interestingly, "Action painting" like this is based on the idea of trying to tap into an archetypal visual language.

    Proving theorems for them might consist of spending hours, even days painting intricate patterns of blotches on a large canvas until they can step back and look at what they painted, and say "I see it now!".


    Less radical than that, we can imagine that ET mathematicians might have normal proof methods, as we do - but a far higher degree of sudden insight. What if they are all Ramanujans?

    After all human mathematicians don't, in practice, make much use of formal proof. We work on mathematical intuition most of the time, informal deductions. Even the most detailed proofs of a working mathematician wouldn't count as a completely rigorous proof in first order formal logic. Yet, we have no doubt that these proofs are correct.

    So, though their maths may be based on similar deduction methods to us, they might make so many intuitive leaps that it is really hard for a human mathematician to understand what's going on. 

    The Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan came up with pages of mathematical results which he recorded in his notebooks, with no mathematical proof. That's partly because paper was expensive, so he did his rough working on slate, and then just recorded the answers in his notebooks.

    Still he also had a remarkable level of mathematical intuition, and intuited many results which he could not prove rigorously - most of which were proved later by other mathematicians. His notebooks, which were intended for his personal use, contain a few mistakes, but very few, nearly all his intricate and surprising formulae and results are correct. Many of them were startling new results in mathematics.

    A devout Hindu, he attributed his results to inspiration from the goddess Namagiri Thayar, and also saw visions of some of the formulae in his dreams.

    "While asleep, I had an unusual experience. There was a red screen formed by flowing blood, as it were. I was observing it. Suddenly a hand began to write on the screen. I became all attention. That hand wrote a number of elliptic integrals. They stuck to my mind. As soon as I woke up, I committed them to writing."
    Perhaps this also might give us an idea of what ET maths might be like if they depend on sudden insight and a high level of mathematical intuition, with only a small amount of deductive proof.

    Page from the Ramanujan notebooks describing his "Master Theorem"

    pdfs phtographs of his original notebooks at bottom of this page, and photocopy type scans here

    Their communications could be filled with dense sheets of equations - and if they are all Ramanujans - just a single line on a single page, which they can see to be true instantly, requires hundreds, or thousands of lines of our more clumsy intuitive proof methods.


    They might also think in terms of fractals,- see fractals all around them, and classify fractals, and think of everything else in terms of these as their primitives.

    This image done by Ondřej Karlík

    I don't know how it would work, we don't have any maths like this as far as I know, but they might find fractals like this easier to understand than our triangles, squares and circles. And try to approximate a circle as a fractal.

    The fractal, shown here is an example of a Mandelbulb  - recently discovered type of 3D  based on the Mandelbox - another 3D fractal discovered in 2010 by Tom Lowe.


    When you think about geometry, you will probably have in mind continuous geometry with ideas of straight lines and points.

    However - a less well known area of maths is taxicab geometry. For humans, this is mainly an area of interest to recreational mathematics. You can use squares, or hexagons or triangles as the building blocks.

    But it's also the geometry used for cellular automata - and for discrete simulations of water flow, and many computer models.

    Taxicab geometry - similar to routes traveled by taxis in modern grid network type cities. The three paths shown in red, blue and yellow are all the same length. Green path shows the distance in a continuous geometry.

    So that's another possibility. ETs could make far more extensive use of discrete geometries, and might make hardly any use of continuous geometry.

    It's not as if our space is continuous in any essential obvious way. We can't measure anything to infinite precision. So continuous space is as much of an approximation as a discrete space. But for some reason human mathematicians have settled on a continuous geometry as the "default" way of thinking about space.

    Continous geometry does have advantages of isotropy - hard to make an isotropic discrete geometry (e.g. one with no "preferred direction" for fast travel). But that again might not be impossible (I actually wrote a paper about isotropic discrete geometries, might have a go at publishing it, but haven't attempted to publish it yet - anyway - found that there are techniques you can use to create isotropic discrete geometries - that is - isotropic in the limit as the cells get smaller and smaller. It took a bit of lateral thinking, but once I got the idea - it wasn't that hard - I found two different ways to do it, maybe you can think of others? I think the main reason we don't study them is just because nobody is that much interested in them).

    Another way is to use discrete gas cellular automata. There are exact solutions to equations of gas diffusion and incompressible liquid flow on hexagonal lattices. This lets you construct cellular automata evolving just according to rules about nearest neighbours, that have things like expanding circular waves. Here is an example of a gas automata

    What if ETs think of it in terms of discrete geometry as their "default" way of thinking about the space they live in - and unlike us - do all their physics using discrete geometries like this.

    They might have continuous geometry as a recreational area of maths similar to taxicab geometry. Again most ETs, possibly, might not even have heard of continuous geometry.

    I don't know how likely or possible this is. Just putting it forward as a possible idea to think over - is it possible that ETs could have discrete rather than continuous geometry?


    All modern human societies have numbers in some form. Many different counting systems, and some of them are inefficient for counting large numbers - but they all have numbers.

    Many birds and animals can also "count" to some extent.

    So we tend to think that counting will be universal amongst ETs. But would it?

    What about an intelligent slime mold? Or an intelligent creature that lives in a Europa type ocean, and has almost no short term memory? Would counting come naturally to them also?

    They might think in terms of linear orderings instead for instance. And perhaps have fuzzy continuous geometrical primitives, or topologically equivalent sets as their primitives, understand everything in terms of topology instead of discrete sets.

    You can go a long way in some areas of maths without ever mentioning numbers or counting things. Surely they'd have some equivalent but it might be as abstract for them as open and closed sets are for most of us. Could be that non mathematician ETs don't even know about numbers - and in maths, they use them only in particular specialized fields.


    Another possibility is - that they have numbers, but are no good at arithmetic, so again, numbers are things they use rarely, because they find them difficult to understand.

    Like Emma King, cosmologist, "The Mathematician who can't add up".

    Perhaps they are all like her, for them, discalula might be the norm. We might seem prodigies to them, like "lightning calculators".

    (Of course could equally be the other way that the ETs are all lightning calculators as the norm).


    What if the ETs don't use maths at all, as a formal discipline at least?

    After all many humans get by fine with very little use of maths. Suppose they do everything by biological engineering and analogue computing, they might have a poetic / artistic approach even to traveling between stars.

    It's only recently that mathematicians have become common and important elements of society - not that long ago there would be only a few mathematicians in an entire country. Perhaps part of the reason we have so many mathematicians nowadays is because of the success of maths in technology.

    So, suppose that the ETs don't need maths to build complex machines, even computers - but somehow - like slime molds perhaps - can do it instinctively.

    They might not be as mathematical as humans are. Yet accomplish as much or more technologically. Or indeed also what about hive minds? Colonial ETs where no individual is intelligent, just the community as a whole. Would they be able to count?

    Also, how limited is our vision of the range of possibilities for ETIs? 

    We have so many examples on Earth - slime moulds, ants, bees, dolphins, birds etc to use as analogies for ETS- but they all

    • use the same DNA
    • same biochemistry, same building blocks
    • all evolved under 1 Earth gravity, one atmosphere pressure, limited temperature range
    • on the surface of a planet of a G type yellow dwarf star with a large Moon etc etc

    Of course, we can only reason by analogy from what we know.

    But some ET life might be radically different in some way we haven't yet imagined in their fundamental biology or life processes, not closely resembling any of the creatures we know about on the Earth. So what might that do to their maths?


    This is a somewhat forgotten episode of computing.

    If you used the word "computer" in 1950, this is what they would think you are talking about. It's not a programmed Babbage type mechanical computer - rather - is an analogue machine, doesn't use numbers internally at all. Skip to 1.26 to see the computer in action. Just a minute or two of it. 

    At 1:45 "If you look inside a computer, you find an impressive assembly of basic mechanisms. Some of them are duplicated many times in one computer"

    Wikipedia article about it, range keeper.

    If they have no idea of numbers - or numbers are very abstract concepts for them - then they could still have analogue computers like this, as the computers are based on direct analogue connections between things and don't need to use numbers as such.

    They could go on and develop analogue electronic computers also - instead of the numbers based digital computers we have. They'd have many challenges to meet - but then the early digital computers did also.

    Hard to say if a technological society much like us that developed analogue computers instead of our digital computers would be further ahead than us or behind us by now.

    Surely at any rate they'd be able to develop an analogue electronic computer based technology one way or another.

    Here are a few things we are exploring as humans - which might also point the way to alternative histories for other ETs.

    The last one points to a rather radical way ETs could be different. They might be slime moulds, able to just extrude parts of themselves to use as computing devices in machines.

    This suggests the possibility of ETs that either have little by way of mathematics - or who have maths but not based on numbers, who might well have advanced technology including spaceships.

    Or, they might not be technologically advanced. If not mathematically inclined, still they might be great philosophers, or artists, or poets or musicians, and might have long lived non technological civilizations. Could be by inclination, or could be for a simple matter that, for instance, they don't have hands - maybe like parrots, clumsy and not very strong - or like octopuses - live in the sea, not an easy place to develop technology (without fire) - or like dolphins - no hands or any easy way to build anything.


    If they do have maths, I think it is possible that ET maths could be so different from ours that it is hard to communicate to start with. But would be astonished if we don't eventually find close parallels here and there. Which might be counting. Or it might be topology. Or might be Godel's theorem. Or might be quantum mechanics. Or might be Russell's paradox, or an alternative set theory that is used by only a dozen or so people in our society - or paraconsistent logic - or fractals - eventually expect we'd find some common area of maths.

    Then once we've done that, especially since we do live in the same universe - would finally find a way to map almost everything into terms we can understand to some extent. 


    But I am not certain that we'd find the maths immediately easy to understand. Might or might not. Without any previous experience of ET maths I think hard to know for sure.

    Itis possible there are some ways of thinking that would involve many kinds of "aha's " of insight before humans can get what they are about. After all if you look at the history of human maths, many ideas that are commonplace to us now were not even thought of for centuries or millennia.

    E.g the concept of zero or of a negative number, or of a ratio, or of a uniform way to solve any quadratic equation -  these are all things we teach nowadays - some at primary school and some at secondary school - but a few centuries ago these were advanced areas of maths that only a few humans in the whole world understood - and go back further and there were times before any of those concepts were understood. 

    A few millennia back - nobody in the world understood the mathematical idea of zero, their idea of ratios was very different from ours, they had no idea of solving the quadratic in its general case - they could solve a few special cases of the Pythagoras theorem by trial and error probably - and had bizarre ways of working with fractional amounts e.g. the unit fractions of the Sumerians - everything expressed as sums of reciprocals of whole numbers - seems very clumsy to us - did have some nice points about it - but main thing is - that was a whole society of humans - as intelligent as ourselves - who didn't think of any of the modern ideas of maths.

    So - I think - there could well be similar concepts that ET mathematicians have that we haven't thought of yet. 

    And at the end of that -as in some ET stories, perhaps we'd no longer be thinking quite as humans do today. For good or for bad.


    A mathematical ET might not be technological - can be mathematical without technology e.g. if don't have hands or for whatever reason can't manipulate their environment much.

    If we meet an ET with maths - the chance they developed it in the last few thousand years of the billions of years since conditions suitable for evolution in our galaxy must be tiny - so small as to be almost impossible. 

    So, if we do encounter ET mathematicians, there is an excellent chance that they are using maths concepts that they have developed, not for our few millennia - but for millions of years, possibly even billions of years. 

    What will our maths be like a billion years from now? What concepts would every young school child understand then? Perhaps some of them things that our brightest minds haven't' thought of yet.

    This began as an answer to a question on Quora: Is it possible that an alien civilization has completely different mathematics than ours?


    A SETI/talks lecture about "alien math" linked to below.
    Your treatment goes fundamentally further and also gives some tentative examples to how different evolutionary environment might cause a practical preference for some other perspectives. It used to be said that "math is universial", well maybe that is not a settled idea.

    Everything from cosmos to biology seems to boil down to information, intelligence and in that pit everyone of us who think we have all of that, are lost.

    Here it is as a video

    And here is the Conversations with a visitor from Outer Space article he mentions.

    I was interested to here what he said - particularly - his idea that things like formal arithmetic with its complex proofs by induction of results that are obvious to us like ab = ba, and set theory building up all numbers from the empty set - is itself a kind of "alien maths" :). What if that is how ETs think about numbers, not just formally, but in actuality, that they actually prove results in Peano Arithmetic or Set theory all the time - and though they include results about what we call numbers, they don't think of it that way... It's an interesting thought.

    He also made a remark about Ramanujan towards the end, that got me thinking, what if the ETs do maths like us - but with a far higher level of intuition and sudden insight than we have? What if they are all Ramanujans? Then their maths might be, formally, the same as our maths - but extremely hard to understand.

    Their communications could be filled with dense sheets of equations - and perhaps just a single line on a single page, which they can see to be true instantly, requires hundreds, or thousands of lines of our more clumsy intuitive proof methods.
    Michael Martinez
    Maybe when we have learned more about the maths used by non-human intelligences here on Earth (such as cetaceans and other echo-location mammalians) we can formulate better theories about how ETs might evolve their mathematical skills.

    And maybe, also, we could look at how ETs might apply their maths -- such as explaining MASS and FORCE.  If you don't have numbers can you still compute MASS and FORCE?  If so, how?

    Are number systems necessarily the only evolutionary destination for any path leading from comparative thinking?

    Can we be partially inclusive and all-inclusive without counting?  Maths that deal with infinities and infinitismals may show that we can.

    Finally, what if the universe is in a statistical "sweet spot" and we are in the "age of evolved intelligences"?  In that case all our probability models are wrong.
    Yes, that's an interesting thought. Plus one thing might happen, in future, is that we get non human creatures gaining the ability to talk to us. Already have e.g. the famous grey parrot with a language - Alex the Parrot - who died at 31, only half way through his lifespan with impressive capabilities learning all the time.

    It's bound to be a bit pre-filtered - that we'd only recognize it as maths if they can reason like us, unless they are already pretty advanced in their maths so we can't ignore it.

    But if we get to the stage where we can carry out complex conversations with non human creatures on our planet, I wonder what we might learn.

    Yes you can compute physical things without numbers. They might make extensive use of analogue devices for instance.

    Something like this - but you don't need to have the numbers here as it's continuous. You could set up a device like this to multiply without having our ideas of multiplying numbers as such. Geometrical multiplication without numbers.

    u.s navy vintage fire control computers (part 7)

    Overview of the whole thing working at start of this video. This is what they called a "computer" in 1950.

    Mechanical Computer (All Parts) - Basic Mechanisms In Fire Control Computers

    The more advanced ones were intricate machines weighing over a ton.
    More about them here: Rangekeeper 

    In all of this - not trying to predict or work out a consistent ET math. And who knows, maybe they all end up with numbers just like us.

    I'm just pointing to various other directions they could develop. It is hard to imagine an entire mathematical culture without numbers, but that might just be failure of our imagination. I don't know how you can assess how likely it is that an ET might take some different direction from us.

    So anyway - if this is a possible direction  they could for instance have continuous analogue computers, working with continuously varying input - electronic ones also - if no idea of numbers, or if they seem very abstract complex constructs to them, then their computers might reflect that so when they get to the stage of creating electronic computers and computer chips, they might be analogue also.

    Digital seems more robust to us - but would they perhaps develop analogue continuous electronic computers? If they had no concept of a number as such - but maybe ideas of topology instead?

    Michael Martinez
    I have always wondered how the analog systems worked but never took the time to look them up.  Thanks for those videos.

    But this leads me to wonder if an ET might not devise a mathematical framework based on set theory.  Take ants, for example.  What they do has been described as the product of a "social intelligence" (not quite the same thing as a "collective intelligence" such as science fiction writers love).

    Social intelligence might be able to compute all sorts of things by dividing everything into sets without worrying about ordinality and cardinality.  Ants have foragers, nursery workers, farmers, engineers, soldiers, and possibly a few other sub-groups within a typical colony.  None of the individual members of these groups (so far as we know) has any real significance to the colony, but the groups themselves are critical to the survival of the colony.

    A soldier might recognize only that another ant is A) a member of the same colony, B) a forager, and C) mature (or young) without having to know much else about it.

    Some ant groups enslave other ants.  These slave-driving ants must therefore be able to distinguish between their own and their slaves in some way. A set of slaves might consist of sub-sets of special slave groups.

    Maybe there are night shifts and geological sub-groups within each of these castes.  Being able to organize all that labor into groups, each with their own criteria for inclusion and rules of behavior, could lead to a social definition of an algebra.  In which case, a socially intelligent ET might be able to think in terms of sets without having to rely on ordination and cardinality.

    Maybe they think in terms of "blog math".

    Yes, interesting idea also.
    In our bodies too, we have different types of cells that have different roles all based on the same DNA.

    Was actually posting here to tell you, I've just added a section to the article on 


    Found some other ideas there also - a couple of examples of modern analogue electronic chips - and a current three year project to make computers using slime moulds.
    Michael Martinez
    Very cool.  Thanks.
    BTW -- in my comment above where I wrote "blog maths" I was trying to say "BLOB maths" (but not in the sense of Binary Large OBjects).

    I can see a non-digital vector math emerging from something like a spider's web, which transmits information via the vibrations on the strands.

    We don't just have to anticipate analog math.  There could be something like a chemical math or a blended experience math, where quantities vary on the basis of combining different things together.
    Staying on Planet Earth for this comment, here from the Oxford English Dictionary entry for the word theorem, is its Etymology:

      < late Latin theōrēma (Gellius), < Greek θεώρημα, -ματ-, spectacle, speculation, theory, (in Euclid) a proposition to be proved, < θεωρεῖν to be a spectator (θεωρός), to look at, inspect.

    So it might well be that the word theorem had its origin in spectator sports (the Olympics and all that.)  When, in his great work the Lilavati, Bhaskara II (1114 – 1185) presented the proof of the Pythagorean theorem given above, he simply said BEHOLD and let the reader work it out.  A fuller version by Bhaskara is presented here.

    Maybe that’s how the Greeks originally got their theorems, by simply seeing the result, and then resorting to logic to validate it.  And I find it much easier that way – if I don’t behold the theorem, the logical proof simply leaves my brain exhausted.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Thanks :), didn't know that.
    Yes I'm the same, I need to "see" things - not necessarily visually - same with abstracts ideas about numbers or groups or sets or whatever. But there's a moment when it "clicks" and it all comes together and you understand what it's about.

    I think most mathematicians are like that - and indeed - nobody does truly rigorous formal proofs  in practice, just, at best,  rigorous informal proofs - except proof assistant programs - and a very few times, in abstract set theory or formal logic or some such, just to show how it works.
    Prices on a market where individuals are free to negotiate as they please, is the most sophisticated type of intelligence humanity knows of. The spontaneous price system makes it possible to run globally interconnected industries productively. No one needs to understand how the whole is interacting. Everyone just creates and reacts to prices, individual to individual, completely distributed. Completely evolutionary and non-creationist.

    The unregulated economy is the highest order of intelligence known. That is what has caused industry and science. That is what guides every human being towards ever more productive work. A higher price on X gives incentives to people to focus on taking that price hike down again.

    Intelligence is not what happens in one brain. Intelligence, in the meaning of civilization building ability, is what happens to many subjective individual and the selection process of agreeing to work together, or not. Put one naked human being in the wild forest and he/she will die quickly. Humanity is about living off the artefacts which our cooperation has created. And that creation process is as distributed as our minds are. noone has or could have an overview.

    Please read this historic text, almost 100 years old by now, which explains the difference between an economy of multitudes and one solid singularity of central planning, the context of the forming of the Soviet Union at the time of wrighting is not important to the eternal principles describing the social intelligence of the market price system:

    Sorry I don't understand, is this supposed to be something to do with extra terrestrial maths? 
    I agree that we are dependent on others, and you see that more in maths than in almost any other subject.

    Our ideas we have now developed slowly over thousands of years. 

    Even the brightest mathematician alive today - if brought up, say, at the time of Pythagoras, would not have been able to solve the general quadratic equation. Our brightest mathematicians, if born at his time, would not have been able to do this.

    But - that's a general thing about humans. You also get it in small societies, of just a hundred or so people or less. I don't myself see how economy has anything to do with this - or why one economic system is preferred over others for developing maths.

    Is interesting though to hear that you think that it is.

    The economy is what producers all artefacts, refines all natural resources. And it is quite interesting to realize that no one brain could have any kind of overview of what happens in the economy. Much like no single animal understands what happens in the djungle. And the free market has proven to be the most intelligent system. Obviously primarily because it makes every brain useful, instead of only one single central one which decides what everyone else must and must not do. The free market is simply the maximization of intelligence by allowing brains to work.

    What makes life and humans great is not because one particular human brain "understanding" or planning what happens. It is all completely out of control. Pretty much, I think, as is what happens inside our neural systems. Intelligence is distributed. One entity cannot be intelligent. Only some parts of the whole can be intelligent.

    By the way, do you know how a pencil is made? From the natural resources all the way to the end user?
    Below is an illustration of the extreme complexity of an economy, thanks to prices which spontaneously coordinate all of this in a very information efficient way. This is the only way to make artefacts, by having NO ONE understanding how it is done! Have a look around what you have at home. Can you fathom how your everyday items have been produced by the extreme complexity oif the economy intelligence?

    Read's "poem" about this miracle:

    I Phone version:

    Thanks for this mind expanding post Robert. Only a few personal thoughts from a non specialist of exoepistemology, sorry for the lot of "quotes" that are supposed to convey some fuzzy intuitions in place of decent references :

    I like to think of intelligence as a kind of universal, the ability to grok any shape or structure independently of self centred limited body-environment maps, like a neolithic hunter can "understand" the footprints of an antelope because he groks how it is to run with four legs, though he is not himself a quadruped. A fisher can understand (to some extent) an octopus, a naturalist can understand (to some extent) a bat... my guess is any shape can potentially be understood by someone amongst the diversity of individuals (only a matter of interest) like we are the shape of potentially all shapes. Once this breakthrough to abstraction takes place, the more abstract made/discovered maths worlds are explored in all possible directions, I don't see how a collection of "intelligent" beings (in this sense) could completely pass by and ignore huge sectors of the "imaginary shapes and structures that don't contradict themselves", if this could serve as a broad definition of maths. For the same reason I believe human maths have achieved a pretty decent sampling of the diversity of such abstract structures, at least at some basic level. Probably a different intelligent species with a different sensory/body plan would have different priorities and develop more or less than us such or such aspect, but if huge individual diversity (and freedom to play) is present as for us, a lot of possibilities would be sampled too. In a mainly countable/constructivist oriented species for instance, we would find an obscure group of thinkers dedicated to the continuous and the equivalent of real numbers, tackling similar problems than those plaguing our mainstream analysis... and being criticized for that, but still pursuing this horizon.

    Now what is amazing is that by the sole rule of self consistency and the intuition and formalisation of "structural sameness", maths is not only a monotonously growing collection of different abstract curiosities : very different lines of thought and formalisms kind of converge or fold or collapse back on each others through hard to foretell equivalences and dualisms. For instance how number theory and geometry meets at elliptical curves. Beyond the few annoying paradoxes and kludges that appear when trying to give complete axiomatization and "mechanisation" of the self-consistency requirement on contingent (historical) ideas, the deep results (I'm a shallow diver here, just trusting the commentators on the subject) always give the impression we are still "onto something".

    The exercise of imagining ETIs maths is hard because people doing maths are already ETIs ! They are even "extra reality" beings, if universality of intelligence holds to some extent. But since the probability of meeting real ETIs with a similar "level" of cultural evolution is vanishingly small (barren the "divine" intervention of ultra superior beings playing the dating agents) then imagining ETIs maths is like inventing maths of the far future, a process that can only unfold at its own pace and by definition can't really be foretold because in abstract worlds knowing a place "really exists" (is proven self consistent) is already being at this place. But conjectures are fun, and mathematically useful. What is a tremendously advanced maths world ? More "unified" with less kludges ? Or an undecipherable mess of criss-crossing concepts and equivalences and almost chaotic identities that only a much bigger and long lived brain can embrace and would only make mad our brightest minds (think of some Lovecraftian entities...) ?

    If average distance between intelligence species is beyond any signal contact, then maybe maths is the only way to "communicate" with alien beings, kind of a shortcut through abstraction "above the reality". Kurt Gödel believed in concepts as angels... that may be considered as just a pathology of rationality, as Ramanujan's inspirational deities, and other great thinkers could produce deep concepts without such mystic feelings, but it remains intriguing. I personally think such feelings, or at least the "channelling semantic" interpretation (believing in an actual contact through thought) are delusional. But can't we do something of the fact that maths are probably a shared knowledge with ETIs, even if they are materially forever unreachable ?

    Good choice for the Pythagorean theorem proof. Out of the 100 I've seen that particular one is so visual and straight-forward. It's as the physicists would say truly elegant!

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