Often here and elsewhere I’ve referred to my fingers and toes while in the throes of some mathematical endeavor or other. I like to say that one shouldn’t do math in public. Anyway, honestly, seriously, there is little doubt in researchers’ minds that the popularity of the base ten system is due to the fact that we have ten fingers.

You know, the mode of the place value system (invented by the Babylonians in about 2000 BC and of whom more in a moment) in which a number in one spot represents ten units of that to its right. 10 = ten units of 1. 100 = ten units of ten and so on.

Fingers AND toes. Systems have been based on other numbers. Like twenty. In fact and to no surprise twenty seems to have been the most popular base, after ten, across cultures and history. Vestigial remains of a base twenty system can be observed in French where the number for eighty, quatre-vingts, translates as four twenties.

Another system with modern remains was that of base sixty used by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia. How in the world they arrived at that state of affairs is uncertain and subject to debate. One researcher posits an intermingling of two cultures: one using base five and the other twelve. The modern connections? Units of time and degrees of a circle.

And years in a life. This one anyhow. Just turned. And had the sublime pleasure to spend a few days with five-sixths of my tribe at an exhilarating point on the map about twelve hours west of here. During the course of a wonderful dinner one night I looked slowly around the table asking myself just how I came to be so lucky. Boring maybe, but oh so lucky.

*Much of the numeracy above came from the fascinating book: The Golden Ratio by Mario Livio

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