Greece in the news: Say no to Euclid

I have this great program called Pocket that caches websites for later reading (no, I am not sponsored). Confession: usually when I find long-form journalism that looks interesting, I save it, tag it, and forget about it (or at least rarely have time to come back to it). But at least I feel like I’ve given myself the chance to read it later.

Pocket also sends out a weekly “best of the web” email, which contains links to the most-commonly-pocketed stories. And as a bonus, you can save them directly from the email. As you can imagine, it’s rare that I click through to read one. But. This week, by chance, they happened to have a story on antiquity. And so, of course, I actually clicked through.

The basic premise of the article, if you’re pressed for time, is that Euclid’s “golden ratio” (a+b):a = a:b doesn’t actually work out in practice. That is, (a) this works out to be an irrational number, and (b) many works of art, buildings, etc. don’t adhere to this ratio at all. Apparently (and this I didn’t know), these proportions become somewhat mystical in the 19th century, with everything from da Vinci works to the human body believed to fall into line.

If you’re confused about how this works, I recommend Donald in Mathemagic Land, which places a heavy emphasis on the quasi-magical powers of numeric ratios:

If you’re really busy, here’s just the Golden Ratio section:

You’ll see that Disney is heavily indebted to Greece.

According to the author, this ratio is basically a myth, in that very few designs (including people!) actually work out to a 1.61… etc. ratio. Some do: 16:9 TVs, for example. And of course, not all designs are beautiful

(Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Still, research suggests that

consumers prefer rectangles that are in the range of 1.414 and 1.732

The author thinks that substantially different; to me, it seems like it’s within the margin of error. After all, they are still rectangles (for a similar view on circles, think of Agora). Of course, as psychologists debate the significance of symmetry (is anyone else disturbed that these tests are more often done on humans than buildings?), the significance of other ratios also comes out to play.

I suspect that beauty is much more individually perceived than these studies suggest (I certainly don’t agree with all of these). But I did notice that most of the ‘most beautiful’ buildings to me are based on rectangles. Maybe I’m just a traditionalist?

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