The Neglected Language

Audio Edition Coming Soon!

“I do not play this instrument so well as I should wish to, but I have always supposed that to be my own fault because I would not take the trouble of practicing.”

— Elizabeth Bennett, from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

 

Math is a language. It’s often referred to as the “universal language,” and many science fiction stories use math as the primary means of communication between humans and an alien intelligence. Stephen Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind uses music as the mathematical medium of communication. The number “3” plays an important role in the novel Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke and the film Mission to Mars. The right angles of geometry cause grand-mal seizures in the brilliant novel Blindsight, a story of first contact by Peter Watts. While sapient beings may have developed different linguistic concepts, counting and other mathematical concepts remain more or less the same. (At least with humans on Earth. Turns out the entire idea of using math to communicate with aliens is actually far more complicated.)

Characters who are good at math are usually stereotyped as cold, analytical thinking machines with poor social skills, hyperfocus towards their given subject of interest, and a lack of empathy or connection with fellow human beings. Sometimes this is played for laughs like in the TV show The Big Bang Theory. Sometimes it is played for sympathy, with the implication that they live lonely, unfulfilled lives because of their obsession with numbers and logic. Or it is portrayed as sinister. Math is used by evil geniuses to create weapons of destruction like Lex Luthor, or creates sentient killer robots who consider emotion an abomination like Skynet and its Terminators. Usually these math-centric characters are male; if a woman gets into the role, she is portrayed as unfeeling and unfeminine who needs to be softened by the sweet madness of romantic love. It’s rare to see a character who likes or who is good at math presented as a real, normal, functional human being.
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