Saturday, 18 December 2010

"Decimal" Fractions in Other Bases

Early in my study of decimal fractions I realized that the ninths were just repeating digits of their numerators. 1/9 = .111...; 5/9 = .5555... etc. I didn't have much to apply it to, but it sort of fascinated me. Somewhere in the sixth grade or so, we were introduced to bases other than ten. Something about Sputnik made American education decide that base two and base five was important. I was fascinated again, but when I became curious about "decimal" fractions in other bases, my teacher advised me that, "We don't cover that." {If you know a good name for the general term of such fractional expansions, please advise.} Thanks to GasStationWithoutPumps, I now know this is called a radix expansion. Radix is from the same base that gives us "root".

Later I began to understand polynomials better, and realized that I could extend base n whole numbers across the "decimal" point as far as I wanted using the idea I would now describe as negative powers (not sure I had a word for it then). Armed with the idea that .1 in base 2, or .1 [2] was 1/2, and .1 in base 5, .1[5] was 1/5 I began trying to construct sets of fractions. Moving the "decimal point" one to the left in base two divided the result by two in the same way that it divided by ten in base ten. With that, I could produce most of the fractions that terminated, .0101[2] was 1/4 plus 1/16 or 5/16, .23[5] was 13/25 (2*5+3)/52.

Then I read about the formula for infinite geometric series with ratios less than one. I think the article was about Archimedes use of the series, but I couldn't understand the center of gravity approach at that time. What I did realize was that I could use the formula to convert any non-terminating decimal fraction to a rational fraction..... King of the World. I would write out strange fractions that had non-repeating prefixes to the repeat. Soon I began to wonder about repeating decimals in other bases and set out to explore. Remembering the repunit expansion for 1/9, I wondered about .1111... in other bases. I was kind of shocked to realize that .11111..[2] was =1. How could that happen? But I had already read about "proofs" that .99999..[10] = 1; and quickly convinced myself that in base n, a repetend of the digit (n-1) would also be one. But somewhere along the way, I realized that .1111...[n] would be 1/n-1. Just as it was equal to 1/9 in base ten, it was 1/4 in base five, or 1/2 in base three.

With all this experience, I still found it very hard to pick a random fraction, say 4/7, and express it in base 3 or base 5 or whatever I wished. Then one day I learned about division. Ok, I had learned long division and short division and mental division tricks, but I didn't really know how division worked. I'm not sure what I was reading, thumbing through books in the public library, and the author showed a shortcut for making "decimal" fractions in base two. What seemed like a magic trick became understanding when I began to extend it to other bases.

To understand, I want to do a simple division in base ten written a little differently than you normally would. For an example I will use 1/8. Set up the operation in four columns

Since 8 will not divide into 1, we have a fractional answer and we will multiply one by ten and try again (this is actually dividing the number of tenths by eight. This time 8 will go into ten once, with a remainder of two. This is shown in the second line.

The remainder is 2 multiplied by 10 (to get the 20) and we divide by eight again. This continues until we either terminate, or enter a repeating pattern. Here is the final table giving us the expected .125 for an answer.

The question is what is special about ten, and the big answer is ..... nothing. We could divide the fraction in any base by simply using some other multiple in place of the ten in each line. Here is 1/3 in base five.

Notice that the occurrence of the remainder of one means we will repeat the same sequence forever, so our answer is .13131313... [5] = 1/3. We can convince ourselves this is correct by using the geometric series. The first two digits are 1(5)+3=8 and represent 8/25. The next repetition of 13 is 8/252 , and each two digits in the sequence is 1/25 of the previous two. This is a geometric sequence with a first term of 8/25, and a common ratio of 1/25. Using the well known formula for such series gives 8/24 = 1/3..

Ok, one more example of the division method to help you.... this time we pick base three, and let's try to represent 2/5 in that base.

2/5 [3]= .101210121012..... OK, one more quick tip. Most students know that any repeating decimal fraction can be written as a rational by just subtracting one from the denominator of the repetend (say WHAT?) ok.. .4 repeating is 4/9 (four tenths repeating); and .232323... is 23/99. It doesn't matter how long the repeat cycle is, as long as it starts right from the decimal point; .12345 is just 12345/99999..... and you can do that in ANY base...
so a fraction like .1012 in base three can be written as its base three fraction and then apply the same rule. 1012 in base three is 1(27)+0(9) + 1(3)+2(1) so the numerator is 32 in base ten, and the denominator is 34 or 81. The rule for repeating is subtract one from the denominator, so .10121012... is 32/80 = 2/5....

Here are a couple more to help you see the pattern...

.101 repeating in [2] = 5/(23-1)= 5/7
.101 repeating in [3] = 10/(33-1)= 10/26= 5/13
.31 repeating in[4] = (3(4)+1)/(42-1)= 13/15
.31 repeating in[5] = 16/(52-1)= 16/24 = 2/3
.31 repeating in[6] = 19/(62-1)= 19/35

Fun with fractions!!!


Sue VanHattum said...


Anonymous said...

They're called "radix expansions".
You might also want to read about using a non-integer radix at

Sue VanHattum said...

I thought James Tanton had done something with base 3/2, but I don't see it on his site...

Anonymous said...


For binary, what do you think of the term 'bicimal'? I lay out an argument for it in my article -- I'd love your feedback.


Unknown said...

Nice explanation! If I don't have time to convert decimals to fractions, i am using a fast converter. I recently tried . Let me know what you think of it!

Unknown said...
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