Download Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World by John Man PDF

By John Man

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English does it in children’s code-games. Make a bee stand for the syllable ‘be-’; combine it with a picture of a leaf; and lo and behold: ‘belief’. Sentences can be built on the same pattern. As an English example, imagine six little images: Easy, especially if you know a little English literature. But try going on with ‘that is the question’. No common image can stand for the sound of ‘that’, because there are no one-syllable nouns that begin with a voiced ‘th’. If you want to continue the game, you have to improvise.

Its wave-length (21 cm) gives a unit of distance, its frequency (1420 megaHertz, or 1420 million cycles per second) a unit of time. Using just the two on-off symbols of binary code, these units can spell out numbers of any size. Sagan < previous page page_26 next page > < previous page page_27 next page > Page 27 decided to specify the probe’s origin. Since our Sun has no special traits to mark it out from a billion others, Sagan focused on stellar rarities known as pulsars, super-dense stars that spin at astonishing rates, averaging about twice per second (with the fastest known pulsar spinning 625 times a second).

The oldest dates back to Sumer. The next, a millennium later, is a grammar of Sanskrit by Panini, written in the fifth century BC at the earliest, while western languages look < previous page page_37 next page > < previous page page_38 next page > Page 38 back to the work of a Greek grammarian, Dionysius Thrax, in the first century BC. It took tens of thousands of years of speaking and a couple of millennia of writing before anyone got around to looking at how we do what any two-yearold can do.

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