I’ve got no problems with the likes of Martin Rees claiming that Mathematics is the Only truly Universal Language, because for all I know he may be right.
Who’s to say that giant Sequoias and Dolphins aren’t mathematicians to put Kurt Godel to shame? The thing is, humans appear to be the only form of life on this planet which writes maths down in symbols. If birds do calculus, they must solve the equations without benefit of pen and paper.
So I do think he’s being a little narrow in his view – leaping towards communication with other species in the universe is very important, yes – but what about first starting a conversation with those forms of life who currently share the planet with us?
Yesterday evening, just before I left the office, a lone Pied Crow alighted on the cellphone tower overlooking the smokers’ balcony. I greeted him in Latin as usual – and don’t tell me he didn’t understand, as I got a very definite raak in return.
Once I was home, I was disturbed to hear a terrible racket coming from the South side of the garden. When I popped my head out, there were Indian Mynahs (making the loudest noise), Glossy Starlings and Bulbuls, plus a couple of Weavers and Sparrows forming the soprano backing track. The volume was incredible – the birds were obviously distressed.
Looking towards the washing line, I saw why. My girlie, Scylla, had an Indian Mynah on its back on the lawn and was worrying it, the way that Terriers do to small fluffy or feathered things.
I called her off and bade her stay in the house while I carefully picked up the injured bird, giving the Greek chorus a raucous caw as I did so, to quieten them down. I wasn’t talking Maths at them.
The young Mynah was badly hurt, and wasn’t going to live, so I stayed with it until its spirit fled the scene. Quiet had descended upon the garden.
Over an hour later, as I was bringing in the wheelie bin, Scylla was attacked by an Indian Mynah flying screeching from the sky, talons extended in a pose calculated to frighten mammals. Scylla doesn’t scare easily, and she shrugged the attack off, but the bird persisted. There was no blood drawn and no hurt done to Scylla, but it was easy to see that this bird was acting out of grief and hurt and..yes…rage.
It strikes me that it’s not so important whether or not other Earth-bound life speaks Maths – although I bet they do, just not in the way Martin Rees would understand – the important thing is that most of us don’t have a common language, either with other forms of life or indeed with our own species.