The binary system sits at the heart of all modern computers. Using nothing but two states, 1s and 0s, the binary system has made even the most complex calculations possible. It is also a system that allows computers to run efficiently thanks to its robustness.
What many don’t realize is the fact that the binary system is older than computers. Traces of a binary system being used in calculations can be found across the ancient Egyptian civilization. Early ciphers that date back to the 1500s also used a binary system for encryption and decryption.
In fact, binary is an inseparable part of our culture today. A lot of products of popular culture, including movies and games, feature the binary system or binary numbers directly as part of their plot lines. Which are the movies to watch if you want to learn more about binary?
We really cannot talk about movies that feature the binary system without talking about Interstellar. For starters, the movie is an epic and a must-watch, even when you are not a tech enthusiast. It tells the story of Cooper, an ex-scientist and engineer, who explores space with a team of astronauts in order to find a new home for humanity.
The Binary system is an essential part of the movie. Using binary, Cooper was able to leave messages to his daughter. Messages that lead to NASA and its team of engineers figuring out how to make space exploration more scalable. The movie also plays with theories on space exploration, time, and gravity. It is one of the best films by Christopher Nolan.
Tron is set in the digital world constructed entirely using 1s and 0s. The movie tells the story of a computer hacker who got abducted into the digital world. That hacker, Kevin Flynn, is then forced to compete in a computer game for his survival. With the digital world being the movie’s main setting, it is not surprising to find the binary system being an essential part of Tron.
Bit is also featured as a sidekick to Clu in the original Tron movie. You can see Bit appearing in Tron: Legacy as characters on Sam Flynn’s shelf in the bedroom. In other Tron installments, Bit is also featured as a currency, a navigational algorithm, and a helper. Across Tron movies and games, Bit remains the true representation of binary.
The Martian is another great movie about space. Matt Damon’s Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded on Mars, must survive until a rescue team can return to the planet and pick him up. He struggled with some challenges, including having to create a suitable ecosystem for planting potatoes in an attempt to grow more food for his survival.
The Martian doesn’t feature binary directly, but it uses Hexadecimal in some of its scenes. The Hexadecimal system, which incorporates 16 characters, was the main way he communicated. The Hexadecimal system is commonly used by programmers to make long binary numbers more compact and easier to transmit.
Conversion from binary to hexadecimal is easy with the right tools. The same is true for conversion to other number formats. ConvertBinary.com, a tool that – among which – works as a decimal to binary converter explains how the conversion from and to binary is done on their pages. You can try this free converter if you want to have some fun with binary numbers.
One of my favorite binary movies is Wanted, a movie about a secret organization of assassins that carry out hits based on messages embedded in fabric. That message is directly embedded in binary, and the patterns you see on screen can be translated into actual strings. As an action movie, Wanted is also very good thanks to its intense plot line.
Besides, who can miss a movie that features James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman, and Angelina Jolie? The three actors work together brilliantly, each with their unique quirks and depiction of the characters. Viewers are kept on the edge of their seats as Wesley Gibson (McAvoy) leave his life as an office worker and become the assassin he is destined to be.
There are other movies – and TV series as well as games – that feature the binary system or binary number specifically. As mentioned in the beginning of the article, the binary system is one of the key foundations of our civilization. In an episode of CSI, for example, the search for a serial killer is brought to a close when the binary system is used to crack the clues.
The same can be said for the appearance of binary in a version of the Nancy Drew game, The Haunting of Castle Malloy. Players are asked to solve puzzles based on binary conversions – and the binary system in general. Even hints of binary can be found in popular games like Metal Gear, Alpha Protocol, and Syndicate.
Binary is popular because of its simplicity. The 1s and 0s can be arranged to construct numbers or entire sentences. The conversion tools available today also allow for strings and numbers to be converted to binary. When you do need to solve puzzles in games or you find easter eggs hidden in movies, you only need to go online to do the conversion.
Binary is also interesting by nature. A lot of languages are based on the binary system. Braille, for instance, uses dots – raised and not raised being the two options – in a binary way. Braille may have 6 columns and 3 dots per column, but the root of this language can be traced back to the binary system.
Creative Use of the Binary System
That brings us to how you can use the binary system and binary numbers the way the system is used in movies. One of the most common use cases of the binary system is for encrypting messages. You can convert messages into binary numbers, send it through any channel, and have the recipient decrypt the message accordingly.
Here’s a quick test. Can you read what these binary numbers say?
01001001 00100111 01101101 00100000 01101100 01100101 01100001 01110010 01101110 01101001 01101110 01100111 00100000 01100001 01100010 01101111 01110101 01110100 00100000 01100010 01101001 01101110 01100001 01110010 01111001 00100000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01101101 01101111 01110110 01101001 01100101 01110011
Use the free conversion tool mentioned earlier to speed things up, and write a comment in binary. You can use the same conversion tool to encrypt messages you send to your friends.
There are also a lot of easter eggs hidden in binary online. On online forums like Reddit, websites, and even apps, binaries are often used to hide secret messages, coupon codes, and special offers. The same thing can be found in games. Developers may leave messages for players – something as simple as “hi!” – and reward those who find the messages.
An interesting use of the binary system to deliver a message can be found in the theme song of QI (Quite Interesting), a hit BBC TV show that talks about general knowledge. The theme song of the show has binary numbers hidden in the tempo and notes. See if you can pin down the binary numbers and translate the message.
Still an Essential Language
While the use of binary system in popular culture is always fascinating to follow, we must now forget that the number system is still used by computers as their low-level language of choice. Computers think in 1s and 0s. Every calculation performed using computers involve conversions to and from binary numbers.
Those studying computer and engineering are also learning about how the binary system and the subsequent number systems are used in different scenarios. Values stored in binary require less storage, can be streamed more efficiently, and can be read (and processed) natively by computers, hence why many hardware and software developments rely on binary.
Binary is also used widely in networking. As automated traffic routing relies on nano-switches, 0s and 1s still govern how network traffic is routed to the correct destinations. The introduction of 5G and 6G doesn’t change the position of binary as the underlying technology supporting all modern communications.
Similar to technologies like AI, the use of the binary system in popular culture resulted in some misconceptions about the number format in the past. The biggest misconception of them all is the belief that binary and morse are similar. In reality, morse is not the derivative of binary. Can you tell why that is the case?
Yes, the space. In morse code, the space between characters is important. Binary converts space into 00100000, while morse recognizes space as space. To be very precise, morse is a trinary code built on top of binary code (dot and line). The next time you see morse or similar codes depicted in movies and games, you know it’s not binary.
Last but certainly not least, binary is not about to be replaced soon. Studies on how binary can be implemented on a microscopic level will only catapult this number format to wider, more in-depth use cases. Expect to see the binary system being featured in more top movies in the future.