Friday, January 02, 2009


In a desperate effort to assume to the mantle of concerned middle-class parent, I have sat the mini-Ws down every night this week in front of the Royal Institution Christmas lectures. They were delivered by Chris Bishop, a scarily brainy boffin from Microsoft, who wrote his PhD thesis on quantum field theory.

One of the big successes of the week was getting the kids talking about binary. Even the younger of the minis was able to get the basic principle and convert simple numbers from one base to another. Mrs W understands that the messages we send out to aliens are coded in binary, as this is apparently the lingo they can relate to and would be their chosen method of response. It got us thinking at a number of levels about 'first contact' with the little green men and how everything would go.

Mini-W 1 couldn't understand why we didn't just ask the aliens to call us. Maybe send out a number for NASA or something like that. My theory is that if we had to convert every digit of the phone number - including the area code - into binary, then it would just become too long. It probably wouldn't fit on the three-and-a-half-inch floppy disk or whatever it is we've sent out into space.

Mrs W is worried about what happens when the aliens arrive. She doesn't speak binary. What if they colonised us and insisted that everyone had to learn it? Before long, all the roadsigns would be in ones and zeros and you wouldn't be able to order a cappuccino in Starbucks any more.

This brought us on to a broader point. How much use would me and the Mrs be to aliens if they met us? They'd probably want to know about things we don't understand like maths and how bridges stay up and all the latest cutting-edge medical techniques. I could show them how to write a good ad, but that might not be their top priority. We concluded it was probably best if they went to see this bloke Chris Bishop on arrival, as he'd be able to deal with them appropriately. If, however, he was indisposed, we would probably be a better bet than some random person they found reading Heat on the tube.

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