Speaking of Science Column May 10, 2009

Binary has become essential to modern life

“But let your communication be Yea, yea, Nay, nay, for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” (Matthew 5:37).

These are strange words to begin a science column, I suppose. But considering that they were said nearly 2,000 years ago, and yet have a new significance in our modern day, then perhaps I should explain.

Samuel Finley Breese Morse was an American artist in the 1800s. He was educated at Yale,and became moderately known for his portraits and historic scenes.

On an ocean voyage home from England, he became friends with Charles Jackson who had some training in the then-new field of electromagnetism. Charles had some equipment with him, and the two entertained themselves doing experiments. It was apparently on this voyage and by these diversions that Morse came up with the idea of the telegraph.

Several years of development ensued, but in the year 1836 Samuel Morse sent his first message across several miles (38 to be exact) of telegraph wire. He wrote “What hath God wrought?” That message, as all messages on the telegraph, was sent using just two opposite symbols: dots and dashes.

The original telegraph was actually an electric writing machine. The pen was poised by a spring above a roll of moving paper. The electromagnet was below the paper and the pen.

When the electromagnet was turned on, the pen was deflected downward onto the paper and made a mark.

If the pen was held down while the paper moved, it was a dash. If it was quickly released by turning off the magnet, it only made a dot.

Later, experienced operators were able to translate the code based upon the clattering noise the magnet and pen made as they reacted and the paper was discarded.

However, the terms dot and dash remained.

It turns out that “yea” and “nay,” or “dots” and “dashes,” are powerful. Over the ensuing 100-plus years, these ideas have been refined into “on” and “off,” “1’s” and “0’s” and other symbols that can be used to create what has come to be called binary code.

With the development of binary code and the computer in the 1900s we have been able to create literally anything we can imagine with a series of electrical impulses that are either on, or off.

As I sit and type at this keyboard with just two fingers on opposite hands, the entire English alphabet is coded in a series of opposites. I hope I am not being presumptuous to point out, next to my little article, that the entire works of Shakespeare can also be expressed in a series of ups and downs.

Though few may know it, binary code has become essential to modern life. Packages are marked on the store shelves in a series of black and white bars. That UPC code is what is scanned at the checkout. Television pictures are presented to us in tiny pixels of light.

When I sit at the microphone and turn my voice or mandolin into digital data, I am making music with a digital world of opposition. E-mail is a translation into binary code and back again to English. When we manipulate word processors, spreadsheets, family photos, data bases, cell phones or digital music, we are controlling a world of opposition.

In recent years, people have been able to use chemical molecules as code, using molecules with right hand and left hand orientation as signals. Polar water molecules can be flipped from positive to negative and back. This molecular digitizing results in powerful new diagnostic procedures in medicine.

These show up in a magnetic field and can be used to visualize internal organs and their structure, structural details and flaws, or damage in buildings and bridges.

Perhaps in the beginning, matter unorganized was simply matter that was all alike.

Creation may have been simply the process of teasing out opposing elements in the world so that the elements can react together in predictable ways.

When we use computers to write, film or edit stories that portray great struggles between right and wrong, love and hate, or good and evil, we tell the stories of conflict in the very same elements of opposition. Maybe the world isn’t as complicated as some economists and politicians would have us believe. Maybe it’s all pretty black and white after all.

Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College and also owner/operator of Flaming Moth Productions and the “Bee bar Bee Ranch,” supplier of native bees, native bee nests and native bee information.

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