April 21st, 2007 5:33 pm | by BECKY OHLSEN News | Posted In: CLEAN UP

The World's Most Astonishing Number

Mario Livio

Live Review: Dr. Mario Livio, "The Golden Ratio"
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Thursday, April 17

by Patrick Leyshock & Becky Ohlsen

We got through almost the entire evening without anyone making a reference to the you-know-what.

That's right: At an event dedicated to exploring the significance of a particular number in everything from Galileo to Dalí, from sunflowers to the stock market, nobody (until the post-lecture reception) uttered the words "The Da Vinci Code".

This is even more surprising considering the varied nature of the crowd, which ran from retirees to elementary-schoolers and included equal proportions of fanny packs and M.C. Escher t-shirts. Math nerds, it seems, exist in many forms, including cute girls and good-looking boys.

After a brief introduction, Dr. Mario Livio walked onto the stage. He had bedhead. He told jokes. The crowd loved him. (Later, a gaggle of high-school girls was overheard saying of the astrophysicist, who was born in Romania and grew up in Israel: "Omigod his accent was SO cute!")

Livio was here to discuss the topic of his book The Golden Ratio, which tells the story of the number phi (1.618...). This number turns up in all kinds of surprising places, from the arrangement of flower petals to the formation of certain aluminum-alloy crystals to buildings by Le Corbusier and paintings by Salvador Dalí—even, some have claimed, in the Great Pyramids. It's closely tied to Fibonacci numbers ("he's the guy who invented all those word problems," Livio pointed out—you know, one train leaves Station A going 20 mph, etc.). Livio even showed phi appearing in an example using rabbit reproduction (see? math IS sexy). Then, going "just about as far from the breeding of rabbits as I can go," he showed phi turning up in the optics of light rays. And that was just for starters.

This wide interdisciplinary range of the places where phi appears is part of what drew such a large and varied crowd to Livio's speech. But there's more to it than that.

The most interesting question from the audience concerned not the Golden Ratio, but the lecture itself: "Can you tell us, Dr. Livio, why so many of us are here, inside, on a beautiful spring evening, listening to a lecture about mathematics"? Livio's response was fascinating: "I think that there's a little of the Pythagoreans in all of us."

This wasn't an oblique reference to people being made of triangles. Livio recognizes that human beings constantly seek order and meaning in the world. The Pythagoreans were an ancient Greek philosophical/religious school whose beliefs were heavily influenced by geometry and mathematics. While they discovered significant mathematical and geometric truths (remember the Pythagorean Theorem, kids? For all right triangles, a^2 + b^2 = c^2?) they also found numbers significant in a way that is foreign to us. Livio pointed out, for example, that the Pythagoreans believed even numbers were feminine, and odd numbers masculine. The sum of 2 and 3 - a feminine and a masculine number - was believed to be especially significant, representing love.

We find humor in the Pythagoreans' belief about masculine and feminine numbers, perhaps even labeling such beliefs as irrational or crazy. In pointing out that "there's a little of the Pythagoreans in all of us," Livio was gently urging restraint on making such judgments. The recent history of interest in the golden ratio illustrates this—the ratio figured in Dan Brown's bestselling book The Da Vinci Code.

Happily, Livio played the role of "mythbuster" in the lecture, examining and debunking several widely circulated claims about the ratio. The golden ratio, for example, is often said to define the most aesthetically pleasant rectangle—that is, a rectangle whose long side is 1.618 times the length of the short side looks the most attractive to us. Livio noted that while many credible psychological studies have confirmed this claim, just as many credible psychological studies have disconfirmed it. While we may want to believe that there's something "mystical" about rectangles constructed with the golden ratio that makes them more aesthetically pleasant than other rectangles, this belief is unwarranted.

This healthy skepticism is refreshing, inspirational, and powerful. In an age where tourists flock to Da Vinci Code bus tours in search of mystical secrets, Livio reminds us that we don't need mysticism to make scientific inquiry fascinating. Evidence of this could be seen in the number of high-school students attending Livio's lecture—they were obviously engaged in the material, and asked the bulk of the questions. The Institute for Science, Engineering and Public Policy (ISEPP), which organizes this annual lecture series, is largely to thank: The nonprofit cooperates with the Mentor Graphics Foundation to give free tickets to school kids (more on that topic in future posts). Meanwhile, the next lecture, "Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel," is May 17; see www.isepp.org for details.
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