Pictures, sound, and text are routinely transmitted from one place to another via the Internet, fax machines, or modems. How can such things be transmitted through telephone wires? The key to doing this is to change them into numbers or bits (the digits 0 or 1). It’s easy to see how to change text to numbers. For example, we could use the correspondence

A = 00000001, B = 00000010, C = 00000011, D = 00000100, E = 00000101,

and so on. The word “BED” then becomes

000000100000010100000100

.

By reading the digits in groups of eight, it is possible to translate this number back to the word “BED.”

Changing sound to bits is more complicated. A sound wave can be graphed on an oscilloscope or a computer. The graph is then broken down mathematically into simpler components corresponding to the different frequencies of the original sound. (A branch of mathematics called Fourier analysis is used here.) The intensity of each component is a number, and the original sound can be reconstructed from these numbers. For example, music is stored on a CD as a sequence of bits; it may look like 101010001010010100101010 10000010 11110101000101011.... (One second of music requires 1.5 million bits!) The CD player reconstructs the music from the numbers on the CD.

Changing pictures into numbers involves expressing the color and brightness of each dot (or pixel) into a number. This is done very efficiently using a branch of mathematics called wavelet theory. The FBI uses wavelets as a compact way to store the millions of fingerprints they need on file.