In the wonderfull wall full of formulas (already mentioned in this blog) that you can see in the Cosmocaixa in Barcelona, there also is the sacred equation which solution is the famous golden ratio:
Of course, one of the solutions of x2 = x + 1 is the number x = 1.6180339887498948482… (the other is -0.6180339887498948482…). At first sight it may seem a regular solution for a regular equation, but this number has revealed to the world of mathematics a whole new conception of nature and proportionality and this is the reason why it is interesting to know the history of this number and who dared to study its wonderful properties.
Since the golden ratio is a proportion between two segments, some mathematicians have assigned its origin to the ancient civilizations who created great artworks such as the Egyptian pyramids or Babylonian and Assyrian steles, even though it is thought that the presence of the ratio was not done on purpose. We can go forward on history and find the paintings and sculptures in the Greek Parthenon made by Phidias, whose name was taken by Mark Barr in 1900 in order to assign the ratio the Greek letter phi. So we can associate the first conscious appearance of the golden ratio with the Ancient Greece because of its multiple presence in geometry. Although it is usually thought that Plato worked with some theorems involving the golden ratio as Proclus said in his Commentary on Euclid’s Elements, Euclid was the first known person who studied formally such ratio, defining it as the division of a line into extreme and mean ratio. Euclid’s claim of the ratio is the third definition on his sixth book of Elements, which follows: “A straight line is said to have been cut in extreme and mean ratio when, as the whole line is to the greater segment, so is the greater to the lesser”. He also described that the ratio could not be obtained as the division between two integers, referring to the golden ratio as an irrational number.
In the 13th century, Leonardo de Pisa (also known as Fibonacci) defined his famous serie in the Liber abaci (1202) although he wasn’t aware that phi is asymptotically obtained by dividing each number in the serie by its antecedent, thus, lots of natural phenomena which follows the Fibonacci sequence in any way, are related to the golden proportion.
Another important work from the 16th century is De Divina Proportione (1509) by Luca Pacioli, where the mathematician and theologian explains why the golden ratio should be considered as “divine”, comparing properties of our number like its unicity, immeasurability, self-similarity and the fact its obtained by three segments of a line, with divine qualities as the unicity and omnipresence of God and the Holy Trinity.
In the Renaissance, the golden ratio was chosen as the beauty proportion in the human body and all the painters and artists used it for his great masterpieces, like Leonardo da Vinci in his Mona Lisa or his famous Vitruvian Man.
The golden ratio was known in the world of mathematics as the Euclidean ratio between two lines and it wasn’t until 1597 that Michael Maestlin considered it as a number and approximated the inverse number of phi, describing it as “about 0.6180340”, written in a letter sent to his pupil Johannes Kepler. Kepler, famous by his astronomical theory about planetary orbits, also talked about the golden ratio and claimed that the division of each number in the Fibonacci sequence by its precursor, will result asymptotically the phi number. He called it a “precious jewel” and compared its importance to the Pythagoras theorem.
About one century later, the Swiss naturalist and philosopher Charles Bonnet (1720-1793) found the relation between the Fibonacci sequence and the spiral phyllotaxy of plants andthe German mathematician Martin Ohm (1792-1872) gave the ratio its famous “golden” adjective. If we want to talk about artists who introduced the ratio in their paintings in the modern times, a good example would be Salvador Dalí, whose artwork is plenty of masterpieces structured by the golden ratio.
This is just a brief summary of the history behind the golden ratio, which suffices to show that the interest induced by this number over the minds of the greatest mathematicians hasn’t ceased since the Ancient Greece, and even people non-related with mathematics have used it in their own work, which shows the importance and the multiple presence of mathematics and this special number in places that one could not imagine
This post has been written by Pol Casellas and Eric Sandín in the subject Història de les Matemàtiques (History of Mathematics, 2014-15).
Last Wednesday I went to MMACA (Museum of Mathematics of Catalonia) with some of my students. This museum is located in Mercader Palace in Cornellà de Llobregat (near Barcelona) since February and we enjoyed a very interesting “mathematical experience”.
The museum is not so big but you can “touch” and discover Mathematics in all its rooms. I think that there are enough experiences to enjoy arithemtical and geometrical properties, simmetries, mirrors, impossible tessellations, Stadistics,…
For example, students could check the validity of theorem of Pythagoras in two ways. First of all, they coud weigh wooden squares and check that the square constructed on the hypotenuse of a right triangle weighs the same as the two squares constructed on the other two sides of the triabgle. Later, they discovered that the first square could be divided in some pieces of Tangram with which they could construct the other two squares. So the visitors demonstrated the theorem in a very didactic way: playing with balances and playing with tangram.
Students also learnt some properties of the cycloid and they could check its brachistochronic characteristic. I imagine Galileo or some of Bernoulli brothers in the 17th century doing the same experiments with a similar instrument. What a wonderful curve! The ball always reaches the central point in the same time and its initial position doesn’t matter!
Another of the studied curves is the catenary which is one of the emblematic mathematical symbols of Antoni Gaudi’s architecture in Barcelona.
Of course, polyhedra are very important in the exhibition and visitors can play with them so they discover some of their most important properties. For example, which is the dual polyhedron of the dodecahedron? Playing with it the students could see that the hidden polyhedron is a… You must visit MMACA and discover it!
Another example: look at these three wooden pieces…
The dodecahedron has an ortonormal symmetry and we can check it with an ortonormal set of mirrors:
There are more mirrors and more wooden pieces to play and construct other different Platonic and Archimedian polyhedra.
And… did you know that it’s possible to draw a right line playing with two circles? If the red circle rotates within the black one… what figure is described by the yellow point?
In the 13th century, the great Nasîr al-Dîn al-Tûsî had to build one similar instrument to improve the astronomical geometrical systems with his “Al-Tûsî’s pair”:
Rotating a circle within another one, he could move a point in a right line without denying Aristotelian philosophy. This dual system was used by al-Tûsî in his Zîj-i Ilkhanî (finished in 1272) and Nicolas Copernicus probably read this innovation together with other Arabic astronomical models. Thinking about them, he began to improve the astronomical system of his De Revolutionibus (1543). Al-Tûsî’s pair was very famous until the 15th century.
In Erathostenes Room there are some Sam lloyd’s puzzles, games about tesselations, Stadistics, Probablility and this quadric:
I didn’t know that it could be described only with a multiplication table! Is its equation z = xy? Yes, of course! My students also played to build the famous Leonardo’s bridge and they could see that there isn’t necessary any nail to hold a bridge.
Ah! And I can’t forget to say that if you visit MMACA with a person that don’t like Maths, he/she can always admire this beautiful XIX century Mercader Palace:
Furthermore, one of the rooms of the palace is decoratd by a chess lover!
So… you must go to MMACA and enjoy Mathematics in a way ever done!
Leonardo da Vinci was born in April 15, 1452 but Googe dedicated to him this doodle in April 14, 2005. Happy birthday Leonardo!
Last August, I was lucky for visiting an exhibition about Leonardo da Vinci inside the Peter and Paul Fortress. It’s obvious that you don’t have the aim of visiting this kind of exhibitions when you are walking through the streets of Saint Petersburg but… Leonardo needed to be visited! I bought the ticket and my visit was fast because my wife and children decided to wait for me outside. Nevertheless, the exhibition seemed very interesting to me. The “secrets of da Vinci” are more technological than mathematical but I found this delicatessen: the Archimedes screw!
Next to the model, the explication of the device:
The device, capable of lifting water without application of human force was known in ancient times already. For the first time such a device was described by the Greek mathematician Archimedes (287-212 years BC). Leonardo developed several advanced versions of this device. He studied the correlation between the inclination of an axis and the necessary number of spirals. Thanks to improvements by Leonardo it became possible to pump over a larger amount of water with smaller loss.
Furthermore, I met Leonardo starting to paint his famous “Last Supper” with his Vitrubius man behind him and a representation of the sacred scene opposite to him.
I hope that this exhibition wouldn’t be temporary and everybody could enjoy it!