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Dear Mitch,

My older brother is in high school and is learning how to do stuff with something called binary numbers.

I listened to him explain it to my cousin, and it sounded to me like it's just taking regular numbers and turning them into long strings of 1's and 0's and nothing else! From what I saw him do, there's no way that anyone could really make up a new name for every single number just using a bunch of 1's and 0's like that!

But what I want to know is WHY would anyone even want to do that?

Sincerely yours truly,

Michael A.


Dear Michael,

First, you should know that it is possible to form a new version of any number you could possibly write out in our 'regular' system of numbers (which is known to math people as the system of Arabic numerals). But your real question is why would anyone bother doing such a weird thing?

It is a good question, but -- believe it or not -- the answer is actually very easy for me to give. It has to do with computers. I know (as I'm sure you know) that computers seem to be very, very smart. In fact, many of us think of them as clearer thinkers than most people. But the fact is that they are machines and do not actually think. In fact, they cannot even recognize or work with the numbers that you and I use every day. Computers do not "understand" them. All computers understand is whether an electrical circuit is turned on or not. That's it: ON or OFF. And so everything that we enter into computers, and everything they work on, they have to first translate into a series of ON/OFF circuits on the computer chips inside of the part we see on our desk or table (or wherever our computer happens to be when we are using it). Only then can a computer begin to 'calculate' with other numbers that have also been changed into sequences of on's and off's.

Believe it or not, even letters, words, pictures, and music that we get off computers or store inside them to keep or to send back and forth to our friends in emails are all changed into these on/off combinations of 1's and 0's before the computer can move onto the next part of its task.

The reason we don't have to think much about this process is that the machines we have today work so fast that they do all this translating back and forth so quickly that it happens before most of us can even think about the information or the response that is about to come back to us in response!

Hope this helps,