How many there are there? Counting the ways

Counting has been an essential part of human civilization since ancient times. It’s the fundamental tool that helped us make sense of the world around us, and it has evolved considerably over the centuries. Today, counting is more crucial than ever, whether it’s for scientific research, economic calculations, or even just day-to-day activities. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how many there are there and the different ways we count them. We’ll explore everything from the basics to the more complex, so let’s get started!

The basics: Counting objects

The most straightforward way to count is by using our fingers, a.k.a., the quintessential method of finger enumeration. It’s the first counting method many of us learn, and it’s still used today, even with the invention of calculators and computers. Typically, we use a base-10 system where each finger represents a digit between 0 and 9. However, depending on where you go in the world, you might come across other counting systems, such as the base-12 system or the base-20 system.

Another easy way to count objects is by using tally marks. This method involves making a mark for each object counted and grouping the marks in sets of five to make it easier to keep track. Tally marks have been used for centuries and are still used today in various fields, such as agriculture and sports.

The abstraction of numbers

Numbers themselves are an abstraction of the concept of counting. They allow us to represent quantities in a more precise and efficient way than simply counting objects. We use numbers to quantify things such as time, distance, and weight, to name just a few examples. In mathematics, numbers play a critical role in a wide variety of applications, from geometry to statistical analysis.

Counting in different bases

As mentioned earlier, depending on the culture or field, people might use different counting systems. The most common counting system uses a base-10 system, where each digit represents a value between 0 and 9. However, other systems exist, such as the binary system, which only has two digits (0 and 1) and is widely used in computer science. Another example is the base-60 system, which was used in ancient Mesopotamia to measure time and angles and is still used today to tell time and coordinate longitude and latitude.

How do we count in these different bases? We use place values to keep track of the digits. In the base-10 system, the ones place represents values from 0 to 9, the tens place represents values from 0 to 90, and so on. Similarly, in the binary system, the ones place represents values from 0 to 1, the twos place represents values from 0 to 2, and so on. This method goes on for every different base.

Converting between different bases

Converting between different bases is a useful skill, especially for people involved in computer science. The simplest conversion is from base-10 to base-2 (binary) and vice versa. To convert a number from base-10 to base-2, we need to divide the number by 2 repeatedly and record the remainders. We then arrange the remainders in the reverse order to get the binary value. For example, to convert 10 to binary:

Decimal value Divide by 2 Remainder
10 5 0
5 2 1
2 1 0
1 0 1

Thus, the binary value of 10 is 1010.

Conversely, to convert a binary number to decimal, we simply multiply each digit by the corresponding power of 2 and add up the results. For example, to convert 1010 to decimal:

Binary value 8 4 2 1
1 2
0 0
1 1
0 0

Thus, the decimal value of 1010 is 10.

The combinatorial approach: Counting possibilities

Counting doesn’t just apply to objects and numbers; it also applies to possibilities. Combinatorics is a branch of mathematics dedicated to counting the number of ways a set of objects can be arranged or chosen. This branch has applications in various fields, such as computer science, economics, and cryptography.

Permutations and combinations

Two essential concepts in combinatorics are permutations and combinations. A permutation is an arrangement of objects in a specific order, while a combination is a selection of objects without regard to order. The formulas for calculating permutations and combinations are:

  • Permutations: n! / (n – r)!, where n is the total number of objects and r is the number of objects being arranged.
  • Combinations: n! / (r!*(n – r)!), where n is the total number of objects and r is the number of objects being selected.

For example, suppose we have five books, and we want to arrange them in a specific order. We have 5 choices for the first book, 4 choices for the second, 3 for the third, 2 for the fourth, and 1 for the last. Thus, the number of permutations is:

5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1 = 120

Conversely, if we only want to select three books out of the five without regard to order, the number of combinations is:

5! / (3!*(5 – 3)!) = 10

Generating functions

Generating functions are another combinatorial tool that allows us to count possibilities without necessarily having to list them out explicitly. A generating function is a power series whose coefficients describe the number of possibilities. The generating function for a set of objects is usually expressed as:

G(x) = Σ(i=0 to ∞) [(a(i)*(x^i))]

where a(i) represents the number of possibilities for a set of size i. Generating functions have a wide variety of applications, such as in algebra, calculus, and physics. They allow us to solve problems more efficiently and provide insights into properties of the objects being counted.


Counting is an essential tool in many professions and fields. From the most basic counting of objects to the more complex calculations of permutations and combinations, each method has its place and usefulness. While most people may not need to know about generating functions or base-60 systems, understanding the different ways of counting and the applications of counting can offer a deeper appreciation of the world around us.

List of common questions and their answers

  • What is finger enumeration? Finger enumeration is the counting method that uses fingers as a visual representation of numbers. It’s the most common counting method, especially in children.
  • What is tally mark? A tally mark is a mark or notch made for counting. It’s commonly used in agriculture and sports to keep track of quantities or scores.
  • What is a base-10 system? A base-10 system is a counting system that uses ten digits: 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9.
  • What is the binary system? The binary system is a counting system that uses only two digits: 0 and 1. It’s widely used in computer science.
  • What is a generating function? A generating function is a power series used in combinatorics to describe the number of possibilities of a set of objects.


  • Combinatorics: The Fine Art of Counting by Ian Anderson
  • Counting: The Art of Enumerative Combinatorics by George E. Andrews and Kimmo Eriksson
  • The Joy of Counting by David Beckwith

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