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What is Binary?

binary“There are only 10 types of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who don’t.”

In the binary system, “10” is actually two, not the number ten. 🙂 That’s because binary numeric values are represented by different combinations of 0 and 1, also known as OFF and ON. OFF is equal to the numeric number “zero,” and ON is equal to the numeric “one.” We all know binary is the primary language of computers – but have you ever stopped to think about what that means?

Binary numbers are behind everything that you see or hear on the computer – photos, videos, word documents, artwork, homework, e-mails, texts, bank account information, websites, games, movies, music, etc. It’s mind-boggling to think that under the surface, all of those things are simply made up of 1s and 0s. So what is binary exactly? Here are 8 questions and answers to help you learn more about the binary system.

1. Who invented the binary system?

Around the 17th century, German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz derived a system of logic for verbal statements that would be completely represented in a numerical code. Not actually knowing what this system would be used for, he was theorizing that life could be reduced to simple rows of combinations of 0s and 1s. Eventually, with the help of George Boole, Boolean logic was developed, using the ON/OFF system of 0s and 1s for basic algebraic operations. Boolean logic became instrumental in the design of digital electronic circuitry.

2. Why do computers use a binary system?

The binary system is an effective way for computers to process information because the concept of ON and OFF comes naturally to them. Their electrical circuits are basically switches. A switch is either ON or OFF. This gives the computer two states to toggle between – ON or OFF. It either has an electrical current or it does not. Binary is perfect to represent this as 0 means no electric current, and 1 means a current is present. This works not just in regard to electrical signals and logic circuits but also magnetic poles in media like hard drives. The ON/OFF codes can be rapidly implemented by computers for doing seemingly unlimited numbers of applications. So just think, when you’re running a computer program, millions of switches are constantly turning ON and OFF electronically with amazing speed.

3. How are letters or numbers stored as 1s and 0s?

Whatever is being stored in the computer memory must somehow be represented as numbers, and those numbers are always represented in binary form, which means using only 1s and 0s. When a piece of text is stored in computer memory, each letter is represented by a single number (if you’re interested, you can see which binary numbers represent which alphabet letters here), and the whole piece of text is basically stored as a list of numbers. These alphabet and number codes were established by the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII).

4. How are images and videos stored as 1s and 0s?

A video or a picture is just a sequential series of row upon row of colored pixels. When a photo, video, or other image is stored in computer memory, the pixel location and color are defined by a certain string of ON/OFF switches. Which means it’s actually stored as a very long list of numbers arranged in certain patterns. In a color image, each pixel in the image is typically represented by three numbers – one for how red it is, one for how blue it is, and one for how green it is. These values are defined by standard agreements set by international consortiums.

5. How do computers do anything and everything with just 1s and 0s?

Signals can be sent by ON or OFF states, analogous to the dots and dashes of Morse code that can be delineated between one letter and another as the communication comes through. Information can be stored in ON/OFF states as well. Of course, everyone must agree on what each state means for software and hardware to work. That’s what the international consortiums do. So when multiple 1s and 0s make up numerical patterns that mean different things, the computer can read the codes and organize them into whatever it is they represent that humans will recognize.

6. How are bits and bytes related to the binary system?

The term “bits” is short for “binary digits.” Each bit – the smallest unit of storage in a computer’s memory – can have only one of two values, 0 or 1. These two values correspond to the OFF and ON states of the electronic switches that make up the brain of the computer. A byte is a simply a fixed-length sequence of bits. The earliest computers could only send 8 bits at a time, so by convention one byte equals 8 bits. That’s why you see everything in multiples of 8, like 32-bit and 64-bit. Organizing data into bytes increases the data processing efficiency of routers, network equipment, disks and memory.

7. How can I learn binary?

The Cisco Binary Game is the best way for binary novices to learn and practice the binary number system in a fun, engaging format. It’s great for students in science, math, digital electronics, computers, programming, logic and networking. It’s also a lot of fun to play for anyone who likes fast-paced arcade games. The goal is to master the ability to convert decimal numbers to binary numbers and back again. As you achieve higher scores and advance levels, patterns and conversion strategies begin to emerge. The more you play, the better you become. Before long, you will be converting 8-digit binary numbers to decimals in your head! Click here to play online or here to download on iTunes. (Tip: Be sure to read the instructions first.)

8. Where can I find additional resources and learning activities? – Binary Digits, from Math is Fun. – Binary Number System, from Math is Fun. – There are several activities on binary numbers in this document from Computer Science Unplugged, all simple enough that they can be used to teach the binary system to anyone who can count. – Convert Text to Binary – great for making secret codes! – Master binary numbers and train your mental math with the Binary Challenge App! The faster you convert the numbers, the higher your score. Earn your place on the leaderboards and compare with your friends! Are you ready for the binary challenge?

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