Saturday, 6 March 2010

Book: ‘The Divine Proportion: A Study in Mathematical Beauty’ by H.E. Huntley

I got this book the other day – along with a few other £5 gems on Amazon – and found it a really good buy. I posted Ghyka’s book, The Geometry of Art and Life, before and, although it was a good collection of examples of where the golden section comes into play, I still wanted to actually learn more about Phi.

This book was ideal for getting a better understanding of the numbers themselves and how everything works together. It was written in the ‘70s and there is quite an amusing passage where the author discusses a computer, which he needed permission to use, that could give him the answer to an enormous calculation he was making. If only he knew how much easier it would become in a decade or two. Still, one of the points he makes in the book is that there is still much to be uncovered about the ‘beauty of maths’ and, with the constant evolution of technology, this is no doubt true today.

The book covers the golden section/divine proportion/Phi in a vast array of drawings and calculations. Some of the mathematics is a little advanced for a modest GCSE-level pleb like myself, and Huntley happily points that out in his book, but with his equations in front of you, it isn’t difficult to learn the necessary parts of algebra involved.

I love the way Huntley writes the book – it’s seriously in-depth and yet light-hearted and personal. He makes a great attempt at rationalizing the idea of beauty and why Phi is the most pleasing formula to the human eye. Is it that you learn to love home, and home happens to be the world in which Phi plays so big a role? Or is it subjective?

Huntley makes the point that beauty may indeed be in the eye of the beholder but there are two levels to our perception of beauty. One is inborn in us all – that sense of ‘judging the book by its cover’. Then there is ‘acquired’ understanding of beauty which means that we find beauty through education – I can vouch for this in some ways: I remember an art history lesson involving a painting of Napoleon. I saw the quite plain-looking painting and got quite bored with it until my teacher pointed out the humour behind the image – the artist had an agenda – propoganda – and had therefore added a quite large shadow to the figure’s crotch, basically indicating he was well-hung as if to say ‘he’s the daddy’! Being a dippy teenager, I found this hilarious and have remembered that piece of information ever since. So, because I know that little fact, I feel more attached to the painting – even more so than, say, the Eiffel Tower because even though the latter is more immediately beautiful, I have the ‘acquired knowledge’ in Napoleon’s portrait and it works as added beauty.

Huntley talks about poetry and music and relates the two to the golden section – apparently in music there are time intervals which interact with the body’s internal clock in such a way that we find them the most pleasing of all. This interval happens to be in direct relation to Phi, telling us that the golden section has a claim to us humans more intrinsic than that which was illustrated by Renaissance artists with the human body, namely a connection to the soul itself.

Huntley quotes Francis Thompson to make a point for those who put little value in the matters that he discusses in the book (for lack of education or knowledge, as he argues):

The angels keep their ancient places;
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estrangéd faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.

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