World Building: Alien Numbers

In this post, I am going to take a brief look at constructing the idea of Alien Numbers in your alien world.

World building your alien world is a topic I hope to visit a few times. Perhaps not to the same depth as mental illness or crafting authentic female characters but to a good degree.

We use base ten but why should they?

In our counting, in the West, we count using the numbers zero to nine – ten numbers. This is far from consistent across the globe. Some of the other counting systems on Earth may seem truly alien to us. If that’s the case on the same planet why should you assume that light years away things will be that similar?

This is a topic that Numberphile digs into (video below). The general point being is that you could be a lot more creative with your words and ideas about number systems. You aliens can use alien numbers, and they probably should.

10 is not a special number

There is nothing particularly special about 10. We simply use it because we have ten fingers (including thumbs) which makes it an easy number to count to.

The changes are that any intelligent alien beings in your world might develop a number system with a base of that matches the number of fingers or tentacles or whatever. Just because that was available to count with and made sense.

It is possible that the base system might seem mathematically pure, culturally important or religiously significant to them.  Any of those cases could create all sorts of diplomatic complexities. As a writer, things that make complexities between characters is good for driving the story. Embrace it.

Base 12 might be better

There is a good case to be made for counting in sets of 12. It divides more easily and would make the maths so much easier to work with.

It would translate back and forth from binary a lot more elegantly which is good for computer programming. Maybe your alien number system uses base 12.

It is not very complicated and you could probably make it work as your alien numbers with minimal effort. Here is an expert to explain this better.

We’re not even consistent

Just to confuse matters we don’t even always use base 10 numbers. For time, we count in units of 60. This counting in blocks of 60 comes from the ancient Babylonians. We have 60 minutes to the hour and sixty seconds to the minute. This 60 unit counting is also why we have the number of degrees in a circle that we have (360).

Sometimes we use base 12 – feet and inches. Although, that is largely the American’s just refusing to move with the times. As a result in 1999, a US$125 million Mars orbiter was lost when the two teams used different measuring systems and did not tell each other what they were working in. The navigation and gueince system was, as a result, way off, and the expensive kit was lost.

Maybe your alien race is more logical but maybe they too have these odd artefacts of numerical language.

My background is in computer science and we work in base 2 (binary) but only when we have to. We tend to flip to Octal (base 8) or Hex (base 16) for easier notation. If you have ever wondered by CSS colours are that odd combination of six numbers and letters – that is three pairs of hex numbers describing the colour.

Make gloriously complex alien cultures

There is nothing wrong with making your alien cultures as complex and as varied as we are (maybe more so) with their number systems. The only thing I would suggest, just be sure you can keep track of the conversions.

What strange number words do your aliens use?

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