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## Cistercian Numerals

Cistercian numerals were invented by the Cistercian order of monks in the 13th century. Giuseppe Frisella explains how the notation system works:

A vertical straight line acts as an axis dividing the plane into four quadrants, each one representing one of the four digits: the upper right quadrant for the units, the upper left quadrant for the tens, the lower right quadrant for the hundreds, and the lower left quadrant for the thousands.

What this does well, indeed better than the roman or Arabic numeral systems it’s related to, is to represent both small and large numbers (1 up to 9999) in a single glyph. What it doesn’t do well, compared to roman or Arabic systems, is allow you to reduce operations on large numbers to operations on smaller ones. There’s no long division, in other words โ and even addition and multiplication aren’t very straightforward.

So you might think about this as a kind of mathematical compression system, optimizing for storage rather than operations. If you just need to record a number โ say, a four-digit year โ you can do it quickly and in a minimum amount of space in the Cistercian system. If you need to do bookkeeping, then the Arabic numerals are probably what you want.

But if you’ve read this far, you’re probably thinking what I usually think anytime I encounter something a little strange in the world of mathematical notation โ what about aliens? One can imagine an alien species that can easily do simple arithmetic operations on what they would call small numbers (less than 10,000) in their heads (or has offloaded such tasks to machine), and which would correspondingly value the storage and computational efficiency of a system of numbers like this. Maybe Cistercian numerals, rather than the clumsy digits of our intellectual infancy, will be the best way to make ourselves understood when first contact begins.

(Via Clive Thompson)

Update: Shelby Wilson has created an easy-to-use Cistercian numeral generator. (Via Alex Miller)

## “Where Is Everybody?” or, How Did Fermi Phrase His Paradox?

Fermi’s paradox is fairly well known: given what we know about the chance of intelligent life appearing somewhere in the universe, why haven’t any other species to date so far made contact with humanity? You can formalize the paradox via the Drake equation or some other method, but that’s the crux of it.

What’s less clear is how Enrico Fermi originally phrased the paradox. At Language Log, Mark Lieberman points out that each of the participants in the original conversation remembers it differently:

At lunch, Fermi suddenly exclaimed, “Where are they?” (Teller’s remembrance), or “Don’t you ever wonder where everybody is?” (York’s remembrance), or “But where is everybody?” (Konopinski’s remembrance).

As Liberman writes, “our memory of exact word sequences usually fades more quickly than our memory of (contextually interpreted) meanings. More broadly, the exact auditory sensations normally fade very quickly; the corresponding word sequences fade a bit more slowly; and the interpreted meanings last longest.”

My own favorite (for purely aesthetic reasons) is “where is everybody?” It just kind of says everything you want such an observation to say.

## UFOs Are Not Aliens

Due to recent government reports, declassified data, media interest in those data & reports, and a long-simmering interest by the public, UFOs are back in the public imagination. Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester who is searching for signs of extraterrestrial life, says that there’s little chance that UFOs are aliens.

I understand that U.F.O. sightings, which date back at least to 1947, are synonymous in the popular imagination with evidence of extraterrestrials. But scientifically speaking, there is little to warrant that connection. There are excellent reasons to search for extraterrestrial life, but there are equally excellent reasons not to conclude that we have found evidence of it with U.F.O. sightings.

If UFOs are alien craft, we would never see them:

There are also common-sense objections. If we are being frequently visited by aliens, why don’t they just land on the White House lawn and announce themselves? There is a recurring narrative, perhaps best exemplified by the TV show “The X-Files,” that these creatures have some mysterious reason to remain hidden from us. But if the mission of these aliens calls for stealth, they seem surprisingly incompetent. You would think that creatures technologically capable of traversing the mind-boggling distances between the stars would also know how to turn off their high beams at night and to elude our primitive infrared cameras.

More people talking about a thing doesn’t make it credible. More people talking about potential evidence of a thing doesn’t make it credible. Evidence makes something credible.

## Studying Humpback Whales to Better Communicate with Aliens

In this video, a pair of scientists talk about their work in studying the communication patterns of humpback whales to learn more about how we might someday communicate with a possible extraterrestrial intelligence. No, this isn’t Star Trek IV. For one thing, whales have tailored their communication style to long distances, when it may take hours to received a reply, an analog of the length of possible interplanetary & interstellar communications. The scientists are also using Claude Shannon’s information theory to study the complexity of the whales’ language and eventually hope to use their findings to better detect the level of intelligence in alien messages and perhaps even the social structure of the alien civilization itself.

P.S. Fascinating whale facts are sprinkled throughout the video. Humpback whales “have had the Ocean Internet for millions of years” and can communicate directly with each other up to 1000 km away. That means that a whale off the coast of Portland, OR can chat with another whale near San Francisco. (via @stewartbrand)

## What if all the alien civilizations are dead?

This essay by astrophysicist Adam Frank in the New York Times is upbeat, confident: “Yes, There Have Been Aliens.” Basically, he argues that we’ve now observed enough Earth-like planets outside our solar system that unless the odds of life (and intelligent life, and intelligent life capable of radio communications, etc.) coming into being are much, much smaller than most scientists have believed, then alien civilizations that are at least something like our own have appeared before elsewhere in the galaxy.

But! Frank and his colleague Woodruff Sullivan get to this conclusion in a way that’s pretty distressing. They relax any assumptions about how long such a civilization might last.

See, if you’re trying to figure out the odds of contact between humans and aliens, you need to have some idea about how long alien civilizations stick around. If, in general, civilizations last a long time and keep moving up the Kardashev Scale, they’re more likely to bump into each other. If, on the other hand, they usually wipe out their own species with nuclear weapons, global climate change, gamma rays, or (insert calamity here) shortly after getting a little light industry going, then they’ll keep missing each other.

In his treatment of the Fermi Paradox, Tim Urban calls this “The Great Filter.” We don’t know if the Great Filter is ahead of us or behind us. If it’s behind us, then complex/intelligent life is super rare โ much smaller than even Frank and Sullivan’s consensus low estimates. If it’s ahead of us, then we, or any other species lucky enough to make it this far, will most likely die off or (best case scenario) get stuck more or less where we are now.

In short, humanity may not be first, but it might very will be next.

## Alien: Convenant gets its star

Katherine Waterston has been cast to star in “Alien: Covenant,” the sequel to “Prometheus” to be directed by Ridley Scott. Waterston starred in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” and is the daughter of actor Sam Waterston.

So what’s the storyline?

Specific plot details are being closely guarded, but it is believed to follow the crew of the colony ship Covenant, bound for a remote planet, who discover what they believe is an uncharted paradise. But in fact it’s a dark, dangerous world whose the only inhabitant is David (Michael Fassbender), the “synthetic” and survivor of the doomed Prometheus expedition.

## An economic discussion about the implications of

An economic discussion about the implications of trading with aliens. No, not illegal aliens.

## No Proof of Aliens

UK report concludes that there’s no proof of alien life forms. I’m sure this will change when the UNIT files are declassified.