By Vidhi Dwivedi and Krisha Shah
The number phi, often known as the golden ratio, is a mathematical concept that people have known about since the time of the ancient Greeks. It is an irrational number like pi and e, meaning that its terms go on forever after the decimal point without repeating.
Over the centuries, a great deal of lore has built up around phi, such as the idea that it represents perfect beauty or is uniquely found throughout nature. But much of that has no basis in reality.
The famous Fibonacci sequence has captivated mathematicians, artists, designers, and scientists for centuries. Also known as the Golden Ratio, its ubiquity and astounding functionality in nature suggests its importance as a fundamental characteristic of the Universe.
We’ve talked about the Fibonacci series and the Golden ratio before, but it’s worth a quick review. The Fibonacci sequence starts like this: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 and so on forever. Each number is the sum of the two numbers that precede it. It’s a simple pattern, but it appears to be a kind of built-in numbering system to the cosmos. Here are 15 astounding examples of phi in nature.
Leonardo Fibonacci came up with the sequence when calculating the ideal expansion pairs of rabbits over the course of one year. Today, its emergent patterns and ratios (phi = 1.61803…) can be seen from the microscale to the macroscale, and right through to biological systems and inanimate objects. While the Golden Ratio doesn’t account for every structure or pattern in the universe, it’s certainly a major player.
Does Golden Ratio exist in nature:
Though people have known about phi for a long time, it gained much of its notoriety only in recent centuries. Italian Renaissance mathematician Luca Pacioli wrote a book called “De Divina Proportione” (“The Divine Proportion”) in 1509 that discussed and popularized phi, according to Knott.
Pacioli used drawings made by Leonardo da Vinci that incorporated phi, and it is possible that da Vinci was the first to call it the “sectio aurea” (Latin for the “golden section”). It wasn’t until the 1800s that American mathematician Mark Barr used the Greek letter Φ (phi) to represent this number.
As evidenced by the other names for the number, such as the divine proportion and golden section, many wondrous properties have been attributed to phi. Novelist Dan Brown included a long passage in his bestselling book “The Da Vinci Code” (Doubleday, 2000), in which the main character discusses how phi represents the ideal of beauty and can be found throughout history. More sober scholars routinely debunk such assertions.
For instance, phi enthusiasts often mention that certain measurements of the Great Pyramid of Giza, such as the length of its base and/or its height, are in the golden ratio. Others claim that the Greeks used phi in designing the Parthenon or in their beautiful statuary.
But as Markowsky pointed out in his 1992 paper in the College Mathematics Journal, titled “Misconceptions About the Golden Ratio”: “measurements of real objects can only be approximations. Surfaces of real objects are never perfectly flat.” He went on to write that inaccuracies in the precision of measurements lead to greater inaccuracies when those measurements are put into ratios, so claims about ancient buildings or art conforming to phi should be taken with a heavy grain of salt.
The dimensions of architectural masterpieces are often said to be close to phi, but as Markowsky discussed, sometimes this means that people simply look for a ratio that yields 1.6 and call that phi. Finding two segments whose ratio is 1.6 is not particularly difficult. Where one chooses to measure from can be arbitrary and adjusted if necessary to get the values closer to phi.
Attempts to find phi in the human body also succumb to similar fallacies. A recent study claimed to find the golden ratio in different proportions of the human skull.
Faces, both human and nonhuman, abound with examples of the Golden Ratio. The mouth and nose are each positioned at golden sections of the distance between the eyes and the bottom of the chin. Similar proportions can been seen from the side, and even the eye and ear itself (which follows along a spiral).
It’s worth noting that every person’s body is different, but that averages across populations tend towards phi. It has also been said that the more closely our proportions adhere to phi, the more “attractive” those traits are perceived. As an example, the most “beautiful” smiles are those in which central incisors are 1.618 wider than the lateral incisors, which are 1.618 wider than canines, and so on. It’s quite possible that, from an evo-psych perspective, that we are primed to like physical forms that adhere to the golden ratio — a potential indicator of reproductive fitness and health.
Another example that we can consider is
The unique properties of the Golden Rectangle provides another example. This shape, a rectangle in which the ratio of the sides a/b is equal to the golden mean (phi), can result in a nesting process that can be repeated into infinity — and which takes on the form of a spiral. It’s call the logarithmic spiral, and it abounds in nature.
Not surprisingly, spiral galaxies also follow the familiar Fibonacci pattern. The Milky Way has several spiral arms, each of them a logarithmic spiral of about 12 degrees. As an interesting aside, spiral galaxies appear to defy Newtonian physics. As early as 1925, astronomers realized that, since the angular speed of rotation of the galactic disk varies with distance from the center, the radial arms should become curved as galaxies rotate. Subsequently, after a few rotations, spiral arms should start to wind around a galaxy. But they don’t — hence the so-called winding problem. The stars on the outside, it would seem, move at a velocity higher than expected — a unique trait of the cosmos that helps preserve its shape.
While phi is certainly an interesting mathematical idea, it is we humans who assign importance to things we find in the universe. An advocate looking through phi-colored glasses might see the golden ratio everywhere. But it’s always useful to step outside a particular perspective and ask whether the world truly conforms to our limited understanding of it.