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The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World's Most Astonishing Number

The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World's Most Astonishing Number

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by Mario Livio

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Throughout history, thinkers from mathematicians to theologians have pondered the mysterious relationship between numbers and the nature of reality. In this fascinating book, Mario Livio tells the tale of a number at the heart of that mystery: phi, or 1.6180339887...This curious mathematical relationship, widely known as "The Golden Ratio," was discovered by


Throughout history, thinkers from mathematicians to theologians have pondered the mysterious relationship between numbers and the nature of reality. In this fascinating book, Mario Livio tells the tale of a number at the heart of that mystery: phi, or 1.6180339887...This curious mathematical relationship, widely known as "The Golden Ratio," was discovered by Euclid more than two thousand years ago because of its crucial role in the construction of the pentagram, to which magical properties had been attributed. Since then it has shown a propensity to appear in the most astonishing variety of places, from mollusk shells, sunflower florets, and rose petals to the shape of the galaxy. Psychological studies have investigated whether the Golden Ratio is the most aesthetically pleasing proportion extant, and it has been asserted that the creators of the Pyramids and the Parthenon employed it. It is believed to feature in works of art from Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa to Salvador Dali's The Sacrament of the Last Supper, and poets and composers have used it in their works. It has even been found to be connected to the behavior of the stock market!

The Golden Ratio is a captivating journey through art and architecture, botany and biology, physics and mathematics. It tells the human story of numerous phi-fixated individuals, including the followers of Pythagoras who believed that this proportion revealed the hand of God; astronomer Johannes Kepler, who saw phi as the greatest treasure of geometry; such Renaissance thinkers as mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci of Pisa; and such masters of the modern world as Goethe, Cezanne, Bartok, and physicist Roger Penrose. Wherever his quest for the meaning of phi takes him, Mario Livio reveals the world as a place where order, beauty, and eternal mystery will always coexist.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Most readers will have at least dim memories from geometry class of the irrational number pi. Theoretical astrophysicist Livio gives pi's overlooked cousin phi its due with this lively account, the first on the subject written for the layperson. Phi is the golden ratio of antiquity (1.6180339887), a never-ending number so lauded for its harmonious qualities that in the 16th century it was dubbed the divine proportion. It is related to phenomena as diverse as the petal arrangements of roses, the breeding patterns of rabbits and the shape of our galaxy. Phi is also claimed to have been crucial in the design of the Great Pyramids, the composition of the Mona Lisa and the construction of Stradivarius violins. Livio (The Accelerating Universe) carefully investigates these and other claims and does not hesitate to debunk myths perpetuated by overzealous enthusiasts he calls "Golden Numberists." This is an engaging history of mathematics as well, addressing such perennial questions as the geometric basis of aesthetic pleasure and the nature of mathematical objects. Useful diagrams and handsome illustrations of works under discussion are amply provided. Livio is gifted with an accessible, entertaining style: one typical chapter bounds within five pages from an extended discourse on prime numbers to a clever Oscar Wilde quote about beauty to an amusing anecdote about Samuel Beckett and finally to an eminently clear explanation of G del's incompleteness theorem. With a guide to the history of ideas as impassioned as Livio, even the math-phobic can experience the shock and pleasure of scientific discovery. This thoroughly enjoyable work vividly demonstrates to the general reader that, as Galileo put it, the universe is, indeed, written in the language of mathematics. (Oct. 29) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Take something as simple as a line segment and mark it at just the right place. Looking at it with a mathematician's eye, an interesting relationship appears: the ratio between the whole line and the larger of the pieces it was broken into is the same as the ratio of the larger piece and smaller piece. Better known as "the golden ratio" or phi, 1.618- is a number that has fascinated humans for several hundred years, and people have claimed evidence of phi in all manner of things. Livio takes readers on a treasure hunt for phi from ancient times through the present. On the way, he debunks a number of popular myths (e.g., the notion that Mondrian used it in his abstract paintings) and does a wonderful job explaining the Fibonacci sequence and its relationship to phi. Small, black-and-white photos and reproductions demonstrate items mentioned in the text. While it may seem that the author wanders in his expositions, his excursions into history and number games add fun and depth for those who wish to follow. To get the most out of The Golden Ratio, it is best to have an understanding of algebra and basic trigonometry, although the book is great for general readers who don't mind working a little to gain a lot of understanding.-Sheila Shoup, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The harmonious qualities of the golden ratio-phi-are pleasingly scanned in this history of the number, and, by extension, a historical tour of numbers in general. Phi-1.6180339887...-is never-ending, never-repeating, irrational, incommensurable, one of those special numbers like pi that confound and delight in the same breath. It has been called the divine proportion for its visual effectiveness and Livio, head of the Science Division/Hubble Space Telescope Institute, is willing to concur with this view, although he is also willing to accept that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the golden ratio (or golden number, golden section, golden this, golden that) may not be primary in its aesthetic appeal. What he is more concerned with here is the frequency of its occurrence in nature, from the petal arrangements on flowers and leaves on stems (phyllotaxis) to the spiral shells of mollusks ("nature loves logarithmic spirals," from unicellular foraminifers to the arms of galaxies) to the apple's pentagram, which simply knows no end to its mysterious implications (mystery and surprise are, Livio notes, much of the joy of mathematics). He traces the history of the number, starting with the mists, proceeding through Euclid, the founder of geometry (it threw the Pythagoreans, who liked tidy numbers, into a fit), Francesca, Leonardo, Dürer, Kepler, to Le Corbusier and contemporary mathematicians. He tackles the grander instances where enthusiasts of phi say the number can be found: the pyramids, the Mona Lisa, the Parthenon. What he finds is that, through juggling the numbers, in almost any work of human creation can be found a golden ratio. The nature of the number itself-and others like theFibonacci series, in which the ratio of successive numbers converges on the golden ratio-beguiles Livio, a keystone to the very meaning of mathematics, concluding that it was both discovered and invented, "a symbolic counterpart of the universe we perceive." Those with math anxiety beware: this portrait of a number would be adrift without its healthy, if accessible, dose of algebra and geometry. A shining example of the aesthetics of mathematics. (Illustrations)
From the Publisher
“[An] entertaining review of the history of mathematics . . . A nice mental workout.” — Linda Schlossberg, San Francisco Chronicle

“Engagingly enthusiastic . . . It’s hard not to feel inspired and even unsettled by the hidden order Livio reveals.” — New Scientist

“Numbers aficionados will delight in astrophysicist Livio's history of an irrational number whose fame is second only to that of pi. . . . Livio's encyclopedic selection of subjects, supported by dozens of illustrations, will snare anyone with a recreational interest in mathematics.” — Booklist

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Numberless are the world's wonders.
--Sophocles (495-405 b.c.)

The famous British physicist Lord Kelvin (William Thomson; 1824-1907), after whom the degrees in the absolute temperature scale are named, once said in a lecture: "When you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind." Kelvin was referring, of course, to the knowledge required for the advancement of science. But numbers and mathematics have the curious propensity of contributing even to the understanding of things that are, or at least appear to be, extremely remote from science. In Edgar Allan Poe's The Mystery of Marie Roget, the famous detective Auguste Dupin says: "We make chance a matter of absolute calculation. We subject the unlooked for and unimagined, to the mathematical formulae of the schools." At an even simpler level, consider the following problem you may have encountered when preparing for a party: You have a chocolate bar composed of twelve pieces; how many snaps will be required to separate all the pieces? The answer is actually much simpler than you might have thought, and it does not require almost any calculation. Every time you make a snap, you have one more piece than you had before. Therefore, if you need to end up with twelve pieces, you will have to snap eleven times. (Check it for yourself.) More generally, irrespective of the number of pieces the chocolate bar is composed of, the number of snaps is always one less than the number of pieces you need.

Even if you are not a chocolate lover yourself, you realize that this example demonstrates a simple mathematical rule that can be applied to many other circumstances. But in addition to mathematical properties, formulae, and rules (many of which we forget anyhow), there also exist a few special numbers that are so ubiquitous that they never cease to amaze us. The most famous of these is the number pi (?), which is the ratio of the circumference of any circle to its diameter. The value of pi, 3.14159 . . . , has fascinated many generations of mathematicians. Even though it was defined originally in geometry, pi appears very frequently and unexpectedly in the calculation of probabilities. A famous example is known as Buffon's Needle, after the French mathematician George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), who posed and solved this probability problem in 1777. Leclerc asked: Suppose you have a large sheet of paper on the floor, ruled with parallel straight lines spaced by a fixed distance. A needle of length equal precisely to the spacing between the lines is thrown completely at random onto the paper. What is the probability that the needle will land in such a way that it will intersect one of the lines (e.g., as in Figure 1)? Surprisingly, the answer turns out to be the number 2/?. Therefore, in principle, you could even evaluate ? by repeating this experiment many times and observing in what fraction of the total number of throws you obtain an intersection. (There exist, however, less tedious ways to find the value of pi.) Pi has by now become such a household word that film director Darren Aronofsky was even inspired to make a 1998 intellectual thriller with that title.

Less known than pi is another number, phi (f), which is in many respects even more fascinating. Suppose I ask you, for example: What do the delightful petal arrangement in a red rose, Salvador Dali's famous painting "Sacrament of the Last Supper," the magnificent spiral shells of mollusks, and the breeding of rabbits all have in common? Hard to believe, but these very disparate examples do have in common a certain number or geometrical proportion known since antiquity, a number that in the nineteenth century was given the honorifics "Golden Number," "Golden Ratio," and "Golden Section." A book published in Italy at the beginning of the sixteenth century went so far as to call this ratio the "Divine Proportion."

In everyday life, we use the word "proportion" either for the comparative relation between parts of things with respect to size or quantity or when we want to describe a harmonious relationship between different parts. In mathematics, the term "proportion" is used to describe an equality of the type: nine is to three as six is to two. As we shall see, the Golden Ratio provides us with an intriguing mingling of the two definitions in that, while defined mathematically, it is claimed to have pleasingly harmonious qualities.

The first clear definition of what has later become known as the Golden Ratio was given around 300 b.c. by the founder of geometry as a formalized deductive system, Euclid of Alexandria. We shall return to Euclid and his fantastic accomplishments in Chapter 4, but at the moment let me note only that so great is the admiration that Euclid commands that, in 1923, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote a poem entitled "Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare." Actually, even Millay's annotated notebook from her course in Euclidean geometry has been preserved. Euclid defined a proportion derived from a simple division of a line into what he called its "extreme and mean ratio." In Euclid's words:

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.

In other words, if we look at Figure 2, line AB is certainly longer than the segment AC; at the same time, the segment AC is longer than CB. If the ratio of the length of AC to that of CB is the same as the ratio of AB to AC, then the line has been cut in extreme and mean ratio, or in a Golden Ratio.

Who could have guessed that this innocent-looking line division, which Euclid defined for some purely geometrical purposes, would have consequences in topics ranging from leaf arrangements in botany to the structure of galaxies containing billions of stars, and from mathematics to the arts? The Golden Ratio therefore provides us with a wonderful example of that feeling of utter amazement that the famous physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) valued so much. In Einstein's own words: "The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle."

As we shall see calculated in this book, the precise value of the Golden Ratio (the ratio of AC to CB in Figure 2) is the never-ending, never-repeating number 1.6180339887 . . . , and such never-ending numbers have intrigued humans since antiquity. One story has it that when the Greek mathematician Hippasus of Metapontum discovered, in the fifth century b.c., that the Golden Ratio is a number that is neither a whole number (like the familiar 1, 2, 3, . . .) nor even a ratio of two whole numbers (like the fractions 1/2, 2/3, 3/4, . . . ; known collectively as rational numbers), this absolutely shocked the other followers of the famous mathematician Pythagoras (the Pythagoreans). The Pythagorean worldview (which will be described in detail in Chapter 2) was based on an extreme admiration for the arithmos--the intrinsic properties of whole numbers or their ratios--and their presumed role in the cosmos. The realization that there exist numbers, like the Golden Ratio, that go on forever without displaying any repetition or pattern caused a true philosophical crisis. Legend even claims that, overwhelmed with this stupendous discovery, the Pythagoreans sacrificed a hundred oxen in awe, although this appears highly unlikely, given the fact that the Pythagoreans were strict vegetarians. I should emphasize at this point that many of these stories are based on poorly documented historical material. The precise date for the discovery of numbers that are neither whole nor fractions, known as irrational numbers, is not known with any certainty. Nevertheless, some researchers do place the discovery in the fifth century b.c., which is at least consistent with the dating of the stories just described. What is clear is that the Pythagoreans basically believed that the existence of such numbers was so horrific that it must represent some sort of cosmic error, one that should be suppressed and kept secret.

The fact that the Golden Ratio cannot be expressed as a fraction (as a rational number) means simply that the ratio of the two lengths AC and CB in Figure 2 cannot be expressed as a fraction. In other words, no matter how hard we search, we cannot find some common measure that is contained, let's say, 31 times in AC and 19 times in CB. Two such lengths that have no common measure are called incommensurable. The discovery that the Golden Ratio is an irrational number was therefore, at the same time, a discovery of incommensurability. In On the Pythagorean Life (ca. a.d. 300), the philosopher and historian Iamblichus, a descendant of a noble Syrian family, describes the violent reaction to this discovery:

They say that the first [human] to disclose the nature of commensurability and incommensurability to those unworthy to share in the theory was so hated that not only was he banned from [the Pythagoreans'] common association and way of life, but even his tomb was built, as if [their] former colleague was departed from life among humankind.

In the professional mathematical literature, the common symbol for the Golden Ratio is the Greek letter tau (from the Greek solag, to-mi, which means "the cut" or "the section"). However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the American mathematician Mark Barr gave the ratio the name of phi, the first Greek letter in the name of Phidias, the great Greek sculptor who lived around 490 to 430 b.c. Phidias' greatest achievements were the "Athena Parthenos" in Athens and the "Zeus" in the temple of Olympia. He is traditionally also credited with having been in charge of other Parthenon sculptures, although it is quite probable that many were actually made by his students and assistants. Barr decided to honor the sculptor because a number of art historians maintained that Phidias had made frequent and meticulous use of the Golden Ratio in his sculpture. (We shall examine similar claims very scrupulously in this book.) I will use the names Golden Ratio, Golden Section, Golden Number, phi, and also the symbol interchangeably throughout, because these are the names most frequently encountered in the recreational mathematics literature.

Some of the greatest mathematical minds of all ages, from Pythagoras and Euclid in ancient Greece, through the medieval Italian mathematician Leonardo of Pisa and the Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler, to present-day scientific figures such as Oxford physicist Roger Penrose, have spent endless hours over this simple ratio and its properties. But the fascination with the Golden Ratio is not confined just to mathematicians. Biologists, artists, musicians, historians, architects, psychologists, and even mystics have pondered and debated the basis of its ubiquity and appeal. In fact, it is probably fair to say that the Golden Ratio has inspired thinkers of all disciplines like no other number in the history of mathematics.

An immense amount of research, in particular by the Canadian mathematician and author Roger Herz-Fischler (described in his excellent book A Mathematical History of the Golden Number), has been devoted even just to the simple question of the origin of the name "Golden Section." Given the enthusiasm that this ratio has generated since antiquity, we might have thought that the name also has ancient origins. Indeed, some authoritative books on the history of mathematics, like Frankois Lasserre's The Birth of Mathematics in the Age of Plato, and Carl B. Boyer's A History of Mathematics, place the origin of this name in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, respectively. This, however, appears not to be the case. As far as I can tell from reviewing much of the historical fact-finding effort, this term was first used by the German mathematician Martin Ohm (brother of the famous physicist Georg Simon Ohm, after whom Ohm's law in electromagnetism is named), in the 1835 second edition of his book Die Reine Elementar-Mathematik (The pure elementary mathematics). Ohm writes in a footnote: "One also customarily calls this division of an arbitrary line in two such parts the golden section." Ohm's language clearly leaves us with the impression that he did not invent the term himself but rather used a commonly accepted name. Yet the fact that he did not use it in the first edition of his book (published in 1826) suggests at least that the name "Golden Section" (or, in German, "Goldene Schnitt") gained its popularity only around the 1830s. The name might have been used orally prior to that, perhaps in nonmathematical circles. There is no question, however, that following Ohm's book, the term "Golden Section" started to appear frequently and repeatedly in the German mathematical and art history literature. It may have made its debut in English in an article by James Sully on aesthetics, which appeared in the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1875. Sully refers to the "interesting experimental enquiry . . . instituted by [Gustav Theodor] Fechner [a physicist and pioneering German psychologist in the nineteenth century] into the alleged superiority of 'the golden section' as a visible proportion." (I discuss Fechner's experiments in Chapter 7.) The earliest English uses in a mathematical context appear to have been in an article entitled "The Golden Section" (by E. Ackermann) that appeared in 1895 in the American Mathematical Monthly and, around the same time, in the 1898 book Introduction to Algebra by the well-known teacher and author G. Chrystal (1851-1911). Just as a curiosity, let me note that the only definition of a "Golden Number" that appears in the 1900 edition of the French encyclopedia Nouveau Larousse Illustre is: "A number used to indicate each of the years of the lunar cycle." This refers to the position of a calendar year within the nineteen-year cycle after which the phases of the Moon recur on the same dates. Clearly the phrase took a longer time to enter the French mathematical nomenclature.

But what is all the fuss about? What is it that makes this number, or geometrical proportion, so exciting as to deserve all of this attention?

The Golden Ratio's attractiveness stems first and foremost from the fact that it has an almost uncanny way of popping up where it is least expected.

Take, for example, an ordinary apple, the fruit often associated (probably mistakenly) with the tree of knowledge that figures so prominently in the biblical account of humankind's fall from grace, and cut it through its girth. You will find that the apple's seeds are arranged in a five-pointed star pattern, or pentagram (Figure 3). Each of the five isosceles triangles that make the corners of a pentagram has the property that the ratio of the length of its longer side to the shorter one (the implied base) is equal to the Golden Ratio, 1.618. . . . But, you may think, maybe this is not so surprising. After all, since the Golden Ratio has been defined as a geometrical proportion, perhaps we should not be too astonished to discover that this proportion is found in some geometrical shapes.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Mario Livio is head of the Science Division at the Hubble Space Telescope Institute, where he studies a broad range of subjects in astrophysics, particularly the rate of expansion of the universe. He is the author of one previous book, The Accelerating Universe (2000). He is a frequent public lecturer at such venues as the Smithsonian Institution and the Hayden Planetarium. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World's Most Astonishing Number (Turtleback School & Library Binding Edition) 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 32 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As an aspiring mathematician, I've been reading pretty much any book I can grab at the book store that has to do with mathematics. Phi is a number that has caught my attention before, and I was looking for a thorough look at different places where the number crops up. I was not, however, looking for any sort of religious discussion. I wish I had known before I bought the book that the word 'God' frequently cropped up in the book. If I had known, I probably would not have bought it. I was looking for a book of mathematics, not speculation into whether god is a mathematician. If that sort of discussion interests you, perhaps you'd like the book. However, if you are like me, hopefully you will not waste your money on it get it from the library or find another book about phi.
eeeehaw More than 1 year ago
This absolutely one of the best math books I've ever read.  Easy to read, even my 6th grader & 11th grader enjoyed it.  Long before the political polarization between the art & science, spiritual & scientific, pragmatic & theoretical extremist communities we so often witness today, math was considered synonymous, at least inter-related with philosophical & "real-world" practices and this book provides the reader with a very informative walk through that history, in this case centered around one of the most important numbers in our physical, and even quantum-physical, world.  This is not a book about religion, aetheism, science, art, or math exclusively...but it does demonstrate that to more fully appreciate the wonder of phi in our world that you must consider how it is related to all those other areas.  Otherwise, you become relegated to the short-sighted ignorance that prevents extremists from all those "exclusive" camps from seeing the beauty, historical knowledge, and pragmatic usage possibilities of the number itself. This is a fast, engaging "hard to put the book down" read.  As an advanced student of math long ago (due to its importance & application in analog electronics engineering), I somehow missed much of the relevance of phi to my work & studies (which are scientfic based), thus I gained ideas for scientific applications from reading this book.  Just as important, I gained interesting knowledge & enjoyment re the history behind the discovery and application of phi to wide variety not-as-"practical" things in our lives, eg art, dance, music, spirituality, and more.  Whenever the human mind discovers aspects of our physical world, it helps us better understand and admire its beauty, which in turn helps us discover more about it.
Joel_M More than 1 year ago
In this book, Mario Livio writing on a popular level explores the history of the so-called golden ratio (also known as "the divine proportion" or "phi"). This ratio is alleged to appears frequently in both nature and art. Livio has obviously done a lot a research and does not approach the subject with the almost fanatical attitude that many "golden numbrists" have. While the golden ratio may not be quite as widespread as some enthusiasts would have you believe, it is certainly a fascinating number that almost seems to be part of God's fingerprint on the universe. Who knew a book about a number could be so interesting?
JJBladester More than 1 year ago
I read Mario Livio's "Is God a Mathematician?" and I absolutely loved it. Given, I'm a Math lover and I actually have a stomach for things like differential equations... But that didn't matter. It was just plain GOOD. Mario Livio's Golden Ratio was no worse. It deals with the magical number Phi (not Pi) which was defined by Euclid as a line divided into extreme and mean ratio. Livio details some phenomanally interesting geometrical implications of the Golden Ratio and sets out to dispell common misconceptions of the Golden Ratio appearing in great works like the Pyramids and the Parthenon. What is interesting to me is that so many people in history have spent time trying to understand Phi. From Euclid to the Pythagoreans and beyond, this magical number has perplexed us. Mario gives us a splendid account of Phi's evolution in time. Livio doesn't write in a dry Math textbook way. He captivates the reader with colorful bits and pieces of history which keep you flipping the pages. I highly recommend this book to any Math enthusiast.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was the best math book I have every read. It explains in detail the history of the golden ratio and the people that contributed in discovering this powerful number, some not even knowing of their contributions.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Prett Interesting read but it is mostly Livio's opinion. There are some factual evidence but for the most part, he takes away credit of many early civilizations such as the pyramids, etc.
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Excellent read, easy to understand. More than enough to understand what PHI is about.
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