As Cady Heron of Mean Girls once said, math is the same in every country. And it’s probably the same on every planet too. If we want to communicate with aliens, math is our best bet.

Let’s say we ran into some extraterrestrial life and tried talking to them. Our two civilizations almost certainly wouldn’t understand each other’s language.

But math is universal. Two plus two always adds up to four. The ratio of a circumference to a diameter is always pi. If we meet aliens, we could show representations of simple addition that any intelligent being would understand. Or we could show them a visual demonstration of the Pythagorean Theorem, which will let the aliens know that humans understand how the math in our universe works.

Showing aliens the Pythagorean Theorem would demonstrate that humans understand how the math in our universe works.
Showing aliens the Pythagorean Theorem would demonstrate that humans understand how the math in our universe works.

People have been trying to communicate with aliens for years. This fascination even managed to make its way as the main subject of the space-opera Arrival. We’ve sent many spacecraft into space with messages to aliens. For example, two Pioneer spacecrafts carry Pioneer plaques that attempt to explain humanity to aliens. It features a representation of hydrogen (Earth’s most abundant element), the location of the sun relative to nearby stars, an image of a naked woman and man, a spacecraft to show how tall humans are in comparison, and a diagram of the solar system with a rough trajectory of the spacecraft.

Two Pioneer spacecrafts carry these Pioneer plaques, which are supposed to explain humans and our solar system in case it encounters extraterrestrial life.
Two Pioneer spacecrafts carry these Pioneer plaques, which are supposed to explain humans and our solar system in case it encounters extraterrestrial life.

Seems simple enough, right? Well, the aliens probably still wouldn’t understand it. Assuming that they can actually see the image is a major assumption. Maybe they communicate and process the world around them in other ways, like smell, detecting waves, or some otherworldly sense that we have no idea about.

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And even if they could see, they’d probably misinterpret the picture. They might think the man’s raised hand is a rude gesture. Or even worse, they might think the arrow means we’re attacking.

More likely, we’ll come into contact with aliens via radio waves. If they ever send a message via radio, we might be able to figure it out. All languages follow a logarithmic pattern, where the second most word is used half as much as the most used word, and the third used world is used one-third as much, and so on. So we can probably interpret alien messages by following a similar pattern.

Human languages follow a logarithmic pattern, which can help us interpret alien languages -- but that's assuming they use a verbal language.
Human languages follow a logarithmic pattern, which can help us interpret alien languages -- but that's assuming they use a verbal language.

But even if we decoded the message, we still wouldn’t know what they’re talking about since all language requires context. Since we don’t know anything about their planet, we don’t have that context. And that’s assuming they use a verbal language — maybe they communicate by changing colors, sending waves to each other’s minds, or something else. We often imagine what alien languages would look and sound like, but we’re likely way off.

So yeah, if we ran into some aliens in outer space, we’d probably confuse each other. But maybe some basic arithmetic and geometry will smooth out a few differences.

Photos via Wendover Productions, Flickr / Me2 (Me Too)