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Dare Mighty Things

As the Mars Perseverance Rover descended to the surface of Mars, a parachute opened to slow and control its descent onto the planet's surface. When images were returned to Earth of the 70.5-foot supersonic parachute, it appeared to have a random pattern of white and orange. NASA officials later indicated it contained a hidden message. Only 6 people at JPL knew of the existence of the message in the parachute before announcing it to the world. This set off internet code-breakers who solved the code within hours. The parachute contained a code in binary for “Dare Mighty Things” the motto of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the parachute’s outer ring translated to coordinates for JPL: 34°11’58” N 118°10’31” W.

The origins of the phrase “Dare Mighty Things” are an abridgment from an 1899 speech by Theodore Roosevelt, in which he said: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” It has been the motto of JPL and is seen in buildings around the campus.

This is not the first time that binary code has been used to hide hidden messages. In 1974, the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico sent a message out into space using binary code. The message was a simple pictorial image aimed at the globular star cluster M13. The message consisted of 1679 bits, arranged into 73 lines of 23 characters per line The binary digits, the "ones" and "zeroes" were transmitted by frequency shifting at the rate of 10 bits per second. The total broadcast was less than three minutes. The pictorial image includes the Arecibo telescope, our solar system, DNA, a stick figure of a human, and some of the biochemicals of Earth life.

The floor of Boelter Hall at UCLA has a coded message in binary code. The message on the floor spells out "Lo and Behold!". UCLA sent the first internet message in 1969. The message “LO” that started the Internet at UCLA 52 years ago was supposed to be “LOGIN,” The accidental message became the first message on the Internet as ‘LO’, as in ‘Lo and behold!’ It wasn't planned but was short and prophetic. The coded message in the floor tiles was a last-minute addition to the Boelter building. Originally, the architect designed a wall mural using binary code but in the end, it never made the final design. When the contractor called asking for floor tile designs, Erik Hagen, repurposed his wall mural design as a floor tile pattern. No one knew about the message because it was added during the construction process not the design process and it went un-observed until some keen-eyed computer science student observed that the dark and light floor tiles could be interpreted as 1's and 0's of binary code and that the tiles held a hidden message.

Our PCs, smartphones and tablets, our calculators, all of our commonplace digital tools could not exist without binary code. Each uses a 256-letter alphabet if they are based in the English language. Twenty-six of those characters are uppercase letters (A, B, C, D,…), 26 are lowercase (a, b, c, d,…), plus Arabic numbers (1, 2, 3, 4,…), special characters (!, @, #, $,…), as well as characters for spacing, line breaks, and even simple sounds. These characters are each assigned an 8-character binary equivalent or a byte. When we look at a computer, we see text and images, and shapes. To a computer, all of that is just binary data, 1s, and 0s. A binary code represents text in a computer language using a two-symbol system. It is a Base 2 system, unlike our traditional system which uses a Base 10. The two-symbol system used is often "0" and "1" from the binary number system. The code assigns a pattern of binary digits, also known as bits, to each character to represent turning a computer switch on or off. You might recognize the suffix byte from computer memory sizes:

kilobyte (1,000 bytes), megabyte (1 million bytes), gigabyte (1 billion bytes), or terabyte (1 trillion bytes).

The binary system as we know it today was introduced at the end of the 17th century when it was conceived by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Leibniz was a philosopher and mathematician and was looking for a method to convert logic terms (i.e. true and false) into a mathematical system. He did so using the system of ones and zeroes still used today. His system was based on the hexagrams in the Yi Jing (or I Ching), a Chinese text from the 3rd century BC, is based on a binary code and refers to the duality of yin and yang. Morse code is a similar binary system that uses a series of dots and dashes.

Binary programming long predates what we think of as computers. Basile Bouchon is believed to be the first person to punch holes into paper and use it to control the machine: In 1725, he invented a loom that wove its patterns based on the instructions provided in the perforated paper it was fed. A punched hole is the “one,” and the absence of a punched hole is the “zero.” The essential building block of binary code has not changed since then.

There is evidence of binary code all around us. Check out your light switches in your house, some include a 1 (ON) on one side and the other side a 0 (OFF). You can use 1 if there is voltage (ON) and 0 if there is no voltage (OFF). Additionally, the universal power button on our electronics is an icon representing the binary system.

The Perseverance parachute and UCLA’s Boelter Hall Floor are not the only instances of binary code being used to hide secret messages. We will see more instances in the future of this code being put to work in creative ways. The parachute was not the only hidden message the recent Mars rover carried. The rover's tracks were encoded with JPL in Morse code, another binary system. And, there are more easter eggs that the Rover will reveal in its images in the future.

Don't forget to check out my activities using binary Code on Teachers Pay Teachers and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MrsEScienceGeek. Happy Coding.

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