Tag Archives: Plato

The golden number in Cosmocaixa

Photography by Pol Casellas and Eric Sandín

Photography by Pol Casellas and Eric Sandín

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:

Photography by Pol Casellas and Eric Sandín

Photography by Pol Casellas and Eric Sandín

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.

Definition VI.3  in Oliver Byrne's edition of the Elements (1847)

Definition VI.3 in Oliver Byrne’s edition of the Elements (1847)

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.

Dodecahedron from De Divina Proportione attributed to Leonardo da Vinci

Dodecahedron from De Divina Proportione attributed to Leonardo da Vinci

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.

Leonardo's Vitruvian Man

Leonardo’s 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).

Location: Cosmocaixa in Barcelona (map)

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The Long Market in Gdansk

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Long Market (Długi Targ) is one of the most important touristic attractions of Gdansk. It was a merchant road in the 13th century. After the massacre of Gdansk citizens on 13 November 1308 by Teutonic Knights, the place became the main street of the city and is name “Longa Platea” was first written in 1331. Nowadays it’s a very beautiful long square full of typical shops and restaurants which are the soul of this cosmopolutan city. One of its most representative houses is the town hall from the 16th century and Neptune’s Fountain, the main symbol of the city, is also there. This fountain was constructed in 1617 from Abraham van den Blocke’s designs.

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Thus, if you visit Gdansk, you must have time to take a beer or a coffee in one of the cafes or have a typican Polish dinner in one of the restaurants which fill all the beautiful houses which can be admire in the square.

Among all these houses we also find a lot of mathematical symbols which allow me to talk of them in this new post. For example, Radisson Blue hotel is located in number 19 and the allegorical paintings of the facade are a joy for the mathematical freak:

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

On both sides we have some of the most important men in the history of astronomy like Hipparcus of Rhodas,

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Ptolemy:

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Copernicus:

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Galileo Galilei:

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

and Hevelius:

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Approaching the town hall, there is another red house which is full of artists ans it’s coronated by a replica of Aristotle and Plato from Raffaello’s “School of Athens”:

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

In another house there also are the allegorical Astronomia rounded by Cellarius’ heliocentric systems:

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

And finally we find other allegories like the Architecture, the Geometry or the Geography in the opposite side of the square:

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

For example…

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

…or:

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

As you can see, this is an excuse to admire the beautiful facades of the houses in this square which I never tire of walking through it.

By the way, there is a beautiful sundial in the town hall:

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Location: Długi Targ in Gdansk (map)

The wonderful vault of a Royal Library

Library of the monastery
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The King Philip II of Spain decided in 1550’s that he wanted to have a great library near his court in Madrid and he chose the new Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial to place it in spite of other bigger villages. He didn’t want that the new library was a regular room inside a monastery so it had to be a very important place. Therefore, the library was placed on the second floor of the monastery just above his royal chambers but never above the basilica. Between 1565 and 1576, the king bought almost 5.000 books and manuscripts and the library became one of the most important libraries in all Europe.

Imaginary portrait of Juan de Herrera (1791) from
the book “Retratos de Españoles ilustres
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The mathematician and architect Juan de Herrera (1530-1597) designed a large room (54 m. long x 9 m. wide x 10 m. high) with big windows in both sides under a great barrel vault. This vault had to be decorated by an important painter and Philip II decided that Peregrino Tibaldi (1527–1596) had to be the right artist to do the work. Philip II was advised by Juan de Herrera and other humanists and he decided that the main subject of the paintings of the vault had to be the Liberal Arts. Furthermore, the seven arts would be together with the Philosophy and the Theology on both ends of the room. The Philosophy represented the compendium of the Human knowledge and she is accompanied by Aristotle, Plato, Seneca and Socrates:

The Philosophy

The Philosophy

The Theology is on the side next to the convent and she represented the Divine knowledge. Therefore the vault represented the way from the Human Philosophy to the Divine knowledge through the seven Liberal Arts: the Arithmetic, the Geometry, the Astronomy (Astrology), the Music, the Rhetoric, the Grammar and the Dialectic. We can see a mathematical detail on the fresco below the Philosophy: it represents the School of Athens and there is a discussion between the Academics leaded by Socrates and the Stoics leaded by Zeno of Elea.

The School of Athens

The School of Athens

The scholars aren’t listening to the speakers because each of them is “playing” with something different. We can see at the lower left corner a man measuring something with a compass and two books, a sphere and an armilar sphere, a dodecahedron and a compass in the middle of the picture:

Detail of the School of Athens

Detail of the School of Athens

Going from the Philosophy to the Theology, we arrive at the Arithmetic after admiring the Grammar, the Rhetoric and the Dialectic. The Arithmetic is a woman turned to a table with simple mathematical operations rounded by muscled young men with tablets with arithmetical operations ans counting with their fingers:

The Arithmetic

The Arithmetic

There is also a representation of the Queen of Saba talking with King Solomon  According to the Book of the Kings (I,10,1), the Queen of Saba went to meet Solomon to ask some enigmas to him so we can see a ruler, a balance and a tablet with some numbers written on it. In the red tablecloth we can read “Everything has number, weight and measure” in Hebrew:

King Salomon and the Queen of Saba talking about numbers

King Salomon and the Queen of Saba talking about numbers

The other panel next to the Arithmetic represents the school of the Gymnosophists who lived near the Nile and thought their philosophical theories from the numerical computations. In the middle of the picture we can see one of the gymnosophist with a compass looking at a triangle with the word “Anima” and the arithmetic progression 1, 2, 3 and 4 and the geometric 1, 3, 9 and 27 written on it. The other gymnosophists are computing with numbers written on the sand:

The Gymnosophists

The Gymnosophists

Finally, at both sides of the Arithmetic on the roof we find four people related with this subject: Archytas of Tarentum (c.428–c.347 BC) and Boethius (c.480-c.525) in one side and the Platonic Xenocrates (c.396/5 – 314/3 BC) and Jordan in the other. They are writing numbers in their tablets.

There is the Music after the Arithmetic and we find the Geometry after it:

The Geometry

The Geometry

She has a compass in one of her hands and the young men around her have different geometrical instruments. The two scenes which are on the corresponding walls next to her are dedicated to some Egyptian monks drawing geometrical figures on the sand…

Egyptian monks measuring the lands

Egyptian monks measuring the lands

and Archimedes’ death:

Archimedes' death

Archimedes’ death

Notice that Archimedes is drawing the demonstration of the Theorem of Pythagoras made by Euclid!

Finally, the four chosen figures are the Astronomer Aristarchus of Samos (IIIrd c. BC) and the Persian astrologer Abd del Aziz also known as Alcabitius (Xth century) in one side and Archimedes (c.287-212 BC) and Regiomontanus (1436-1476)  in the other. Aristarchus is measuring angles and has a dodecahedron at his feet, Alcabitius has a carpenter’s square, Archimedes has a compass and a sphere to measure the Earth and Regiomontanus is pointing at a dodecahedron.

The last Liberal Art is the Astrology. She is backed on a terrestrial globe and her eyes are looking at the sky. She has a compass in one of her hands and the little boys around her have an armilar sphere and some astronomical books:

The Astrology

The Astrology

In one of the two panels on the walls we can see Dionysius the Areopagite observing a solar eclipse the day of Jesuschrist’s death in Athens (Luke, 23,45) We can notice a quadrant and an astrolabe in the hands of the amazed men!

Dionysius the Areopagite observing a solar eclipse

Dionysius the Areopagite observing a solar eclipse

The other fresco represents King Ezekiel resting in bed and looking how time is delayed 15 years by God because of the repentance of his sins:

astronomia2

Ezekiel resting in bed

The four famous men are Euclid, Ptolemy, Alfonso X and Johannes of Sacrobosco. Euclid is represented here meaning the relationship between Astrology and Geometry. He has drawn three geometrical schemes. One is a triangle and a square inscribed in a circle and another square. Another scheme seems to be two overlaid squares partially hidden by Euclid’s name. In the middle of both pictures there is a man measuring the stars. Johannes of Sacrobosco has a quadrant in his right hand.

Euclid and Johannes of Sacrobosco

Euclid and Johannes of Sacrobosco

King Alfonso X of Castile (XIIIth. c) is the author of the Libros del Saber de Astronomía (“Books of the Astronomical knowledge”) and on the tablet which he has in his hands we notice a compass and the Ursa Maior (the compass is anachronistic!). His left hand has an open book with a horoscope

Alfonso X

Alfonso X

So you can see that this wonderful vault is an open mathematical book designed by Tibaldi and Juan de Herrera. I’ve been twice in the library and now I am waiting for the next time that I could enjoy this artistic part of the monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

Location: San Lorenzo de El Escorial (map)

A Platonic Dalí in Washington

Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) is one of the most important surrealistic painters. This eccentric Catalan painter finished in 1955 the Sacrament of the Last Supper after nine months working in it and this painting is mathematically remarkable because of the dodecahedric form over Christ and the twelve apostles. The thirteen sacred figures are having supper when it’s not at night and we can see a beautiful Catalan landscape behind the main scene. If Dalí wanted to capture this Biblical moment, why the dodecahedron was painted over it? The dodecahedron and its twelve sides may be related to the twelve apostles. Furthermore, a philosophic point of view can show to us a platonic idea for this famous painting. Plato (c.428 BC-c.347 BC) wrote in the IVth century BC the Timaeus where he associated the four basic elements to fours regular polyhedra: tetrahedron was the fire, hexahedron was the earth, octahedron was the air and icosahedron was the water. Thus, the universe was in perfect harmony with Mathematics!

Firstly, Plato described two kinds of triangles as the base of all the nature:

In the first place, then, as is evident to all, fire and earth and water and air are bodies. And every sort of body possesses solidity, and every solid must necessarily be contained in planes ; and every plane rectilinear figure is composed of triangles ; and all triangles are originally of two kinds, both of which are made up of one right and two acute angles ; one of them has at either end of the base the half of a divided right angle, having equal sides, while in the other the right angle is divided into unequal parts, having unequal sides. These, then, proceeding by a combination of probability with demonstration, we assume to be the original elements of fire and the other bodies

With these two triangles, Plato built the squares and triangles which had to be the sides of the regular polyhedra:

Now is the time to explain what was before obscurely said : there was an error in imagining that all the four elements might be generated by and into one another ; this, I say, was an erroneous supposition, for there are generated from the triangles which we have selected four kinds: three from the one which has the sides unequal ; the fourth alone is framed out of the isosceles triangle. Hence they cannot all be resolved into one another, a great number of small bodies being combined into a few large ones, or the converse. […]. I have now to speak of their several kinds, and show out of what combinations of numbers each of them was formed. The first will be the simplest and smallest construction, and its element is that triangle which has its hypotenuse twice the lesser side. When two such triangles are joined at the diagonal, and this is repeated three times, and the triangles rest their diagonals and shorter sides on the same point as a centre, a single equilateral triangle is formed out of six triangles ; and four equilateral triangles, if put together, make out of every three plane angles one solid angle, being that which is nearest to the most obtuse of plane angles ; and out of the combination of these four angles arises the first solid form which distributes into equal and similar parts the whole circle in which it is inscribed. The second species of solid is formed out of the same triangles, which unite as eight equilateral triangles and form one solid angle out of four plane angles, and out of six such angles the second body is completed. And the third body is made up of 120 triangular elements, forming twelve solid angles, each of them included in five plane equilateral triangles, having altogether twenty bases, each of which is an equilateral triangle. The one element [that is, the triangle which has its hypotenuse twice the lesser side] having generated these figures, generated no more ; but the isosceles triangle produced the fourth elementary figure, which is compounded of four such triangles, joining their right angles in a centre, and forming one equilateral quadrangle. Six of these united form eight solid angles, each of which is made by the combination of three plane right angles ; the figure of the body thus composed is a cube, having six plane quadrangular equilateral bases.

And then…

There was yet a fifth combination which God used in the delineation of the universe.

Great Plato! Which is this fifth combination? The answer is now so easy: the dodecahedron! The platonic solid which was used by God to draw our universe.  It’s easy to understand the reason why this harmonious figure is presiding the scene.

Location: National Gallery of Art in Washington (map)