AskDefine | Define sexagesimal

Dictionary Definition

sexagesimal adj : of or relating to or reckoning in sixtieths; "the sexagesimal divisions of hours and degrees"

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. of, pertaining by, proceeding by, or based on the number sixty


  1. a sexagesimal fraction

Extensive Definition

Sexagesimal (base-sixty) is a numeral system with sixty as the base. It originated with the ancient Sumerians in the 2000s BC, was transmitted to the Babylonians, and is still used in modified form nowadays for measuring time, angles, and geographic coordinates. Base-60 number systems have also been used in some other cultures, for instance the Ekagi of Western New Guinea.
The number 60 has twelve factors, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, 60, of which 2, 3, and 5 are prime. With so many factors, many simple fractions of sexagesimal numbers are simple. For example, an hour can be divided evenly into segments of any of twelve lengths: 60 minutes, 30 minutes, 20 minutes, etc. Note that 60 is the smallest number divisible by every number from 1 to 6.
In this article places are represented in modern decimal, except where otherwise noted (for example, "10" means ten and "60" means sixty).

Sexagesimal in Babylonia

Sexagesimal as used in ancient Mesopotamia was not a pure base 60 system, in the sense that they didn't use 60 distinct symbols for their digits. Instead, their cuneiform digits used ten as a sub-base in the fashion of a sign-value notation: a digit was composed of a number of narrow wedge-shaped marks representing units up to nine (Y, YY, YYY, YYYY, ... YYYYYYYYY) and a number of wide wedge-shaped marks representing tens up to five (<, <<, <<<, <<<<, <<<<<); the value of the digit was the sum of the values of its component parts:
Numbers larger than sixty were indicated by multiple symbol blocks of this form in place value notation.
Because there was no symbol for zero with either the Sumerians or the early Babylonians, it is not always immediately obvious how a number should be interpreted, and the true value must sometimes be determined by the context; later Babylonian texts used a dot to represent zero.


Unlike most other numeral systems, sexagesimal is not used so much nowadays as a means of general computation or logic, but is used in measuring angles, geographic coordinates, and time.
One hour of time is divided into 60 minutes, and one minute is divided into 60 seconds. Thus, a measurement of time such as "3:23:17" (three hours, 23 minutes, and 17 seconds) can be interpreted as a sexagesimal number, meaning 3×602+23×601+17×600 seconds or equivalently 3×600+23×60−1+17×60−2 hours. As with the ancient Babylonian sexagesimal system, however, each of the three sexagesimal digits in this number (3, 23, and 17) are written using the decimal system.
Similarly, the fundamental unit of angular measure is the degree, of which there are 360 in a circle. There are 60 minutes of arc in a degree, and 60 seconds of arc in a minute.
In the Chinese calendar, a sexagenary cycle is commonly used, in which days or years are named by positions in a sequence of ten stems and in another sequence of 12 branches; the same stem and branch repeat every 60 steps through this cycle.

Popular culture

In Stel Pavlou's novel Decipher, this number system is the center of focus, as the bucky ball carbon element is used in the book to store data, and only base 60 proved able to be successfully understood by the computer used. At least one popular book uses the spelling "sexigesimal" instead of "sexagesimal," with the latter being the more common spelling of the word.
Book VIII of Plato's Republic involves an allegory of marriage centered around the number 604 = 12,960,000 and its divisors. This number has the particularly simple sexagesimal representation 1:0:0:0. Later scholars have invoked both Babylonian mathematics and music theory in an attempt to explain this passage.


In the sexagesimal system, any fraction in which the denominator is a regular number (having only 2, 3, and 5 in its prime factorization) may be expressed exactly. Here, for instance, the values may be interpreted as the number of minutes and seconds in a given fraction of an hour, although the representation of these fractions as sexagesimal numbers does not depend on such an interpretation.
However numbers that are not regular form more complicated repeating fractions. For example:
1/7 = 0:8:34:17:8:34:17 ... (with the sequence of sexagesimal digits 17:8:34 repeating infinitely often).
The fact that the adjacent numbers to 60, 59 and 61, are both prime implies that simple repeating fractions that repeat with a period of one or two sexagesimal digits can only have 59 or 61 as denominators, and that other non-regular primes have fractions that repeat with a longer period.
In some usage systems, each position past the sexagesimal point was numbered, using Latin or French roots: prime or primus, seconde or secundus, tierce, quatre, quinte, etc. To this day we call the second-order part of an hour or of a degree a "second". In the 1700s, at least, 1/60 of a second was called a "tierce" or "third".,M1,


The square root of 2, the length of the diagonal of a unit square, was approximated by the Babylonians of the Old Babylonian Period (1900 BC - 1650 BC) as
1.414212... ≈ 30547/21600 = 1:24:51:10 = 1 + 24/60 + 51/602 + 10/603
Because √2 is an irrational number, it cannot be expressed precisely in sexagesimal, but its sexagesimal expansion begins 1:24:51:10:7:46:6:4:44...
The length of the tropical year in Neo-Babylonian astronomy (see Hipparchus), 365.24579... days, can be expressed in sexagesimal as 6:5:14:44:51 (6×60 + 5 + 14/60 + 44/602 + 51/603) days. The average length of a year in the Gregorian calendar is exactly 6:5:14:33 in the same notation.
The value of π as used by Ptolemy was 3.141666... ≈ 377/120 = 3:8:30 = 3 + 8/60 + 30/602.


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sexagesimal in Catalan: Sistema sexagesimal
sexagesimal in German: Sexagesimalsystem
sexagesimal in Spanish: Sistema sexagesimal
sexagesimal in Esperanto: Sesdekuma sistemo
sexagesimal in French: Système sexagésimal
sexagesimal in Korean: 육십진법
sexagesimal in Croatian: Seksagezimalni brojevni sustav
sexagesimal in Indonesian: Seksagesimal
sexagesimal in Icelandic: Sextugakerfi
sexagesimal in Hebrew: בסיס סקסגסימלי
sexagesimal in Haitian: Sistèm seksajezimal
sexagesimal in Dutch: Sexagesimaal
sexagesimal in Japanese: 六十進法
sexagesimal in Polish: Sześćdziesiątkowy system liczbowy
sexagesimal in Portuguese: Sistema sexagesimal
sexagesimal in Russian: Шестидесятеричная система счисления
sexagesimal in Finnish: Seksagesimaalijärjestelmä
sexagesimal in Swedish: Sexagesimala talsystemet
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