This column was published in the November–December 2001 issue of American Scientist. For an illustrated version, please download an alternative format.
People count by tens and machines count by twos—that pretty much sums up the way we do arithmetic on this planet. But there are countless other ways to count. Here I want to offer three cheers for base 3, the ternary system. The numerals in this sequence—beginning 0, 1, 2, 10, 11, 12, 20, 21, 22, 100, 101—are not as widely known or widely used as their decimal and binary cousins, but they have charms all their own. They are the Goldilocks choice among numbering systems: When base 2 is too small and base 10 is too big, base 3 is just right.