Debra Prinzing

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Intrinsic beauty

December 25th, 2007

Anyone who has taken an art theory course or studied design will be familiar with the “golden mean” or the “golden ratio.” These terms describe a magical, eye-pleasing proportion that appears time after time in nature’s own handiwork. The mathematical formula is 1-to-0.618.

fibonacci spiral Look at a nautilus shell or the face of a perfectly-formed dahlia and you’ll see evidence of that unmistakable perfection. Artists, architects and designers have tried to attain (emulate?) this natural phenomenon. The logarithmic formula was studied by a 13th Century mathematician, Leonardo da Pisa (Leonardo Fibonacci). He developed what is known as the “Fibonacci Series,” a progression of numbers that explains nature’s structural design, especially seen in botany. Beginning with 1+1=2, and then adding the sum of the first two numbers with the second, you begin to see an endless series of numbers: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, etc. (Each number is the sum of the two numbers preceding it.) Count the seeds on a pine cone, daisy or sunflower. You will begin to see this beautiful, perfect, equation.

Another related, and also timeless, design notion is called the “French Third.” It is the approximate ratio of 1/3-to-2/3, which also appears in classical paintings, sculpture, architecture and design.

Now I read that scientists think even our brains intuitively respond to evidence of great beauty.

Researchers in Italy recently showed great works of art to volunteers with no artistic training (some of whom had never before been to a museum). According to a report in The Week (12-7-2007), neuroscientists showed their subjects images of Classical and Renaissance sculptures by Michelangelo and da Vinci. Some of the images had been altered, slightly modifying the original proportions. When subjects viewed pictures of the original sculptures, scans of their brains showed a strong emotional response.

There was less response to the sculptures with changed proportions. “We were very surprised that very small modifications to images of the sculptures led to very strong modifications in brain activity,” researcher Giacomo Rizzolatti was quoted as saying. The brain, he surmised, may have a special attraction to images that demonstrate the golden ratio, which shows up in nature, and is emulated in great art. And our brains interpret these proportions, responding to them positively.

It is quite humbling to realize that for all our lofty notions of “beauty,” “art” and “good design,” our very body (brain and soul) recognizes intrinsic beauty. Portland garden

The gracefully-proportioned steps in the Israelit garden (Portland, OR) demonstrate the idea of “French Thirds”

4 Responses to “Intrinsic beauty”

  1. Lydia Plunk Says:

    Intrinsic Beauty. Timeless Beauty. The form, rhythm, scale and material, be it man made of divine in origin, that upifts man’s consicousness above the merely rational.
    I think the concept is not just for what can be measured by our eyes. It extends to all the senses. Great music and literature follows the same patterns in our auditory response. Great meals starts with smell, then site and then on to texture and taste.
    It is not just the sight of a garden that uplifts. It is the sound of birds playing in the bird bath. The smell of oranges blooming on the path in February. The feel of the crisp morning breeze and the feel of the thyme leaves crumbled through the fingers on a morning walk. It is the intake of all the senses that form intrinsic beauty.

  2. Dee Says:

    Aren’t we lucky creatures that we get to observe all of the intrinsic beauty set before us? The fact that physical beauty relates to a mathematical equation doesn’t surprise me at all. The theory of the French Third also reminds me of the studies done on attraction and human faces. We are attracted to certain spatial boundaries in the face. This is coupled with the attraction of scent (which is our oldest and most important sense.) Scientists believe we are attracted to people who have very different DNA, thus ensuring that the species will remain diversified.

    I believe that God is way more complicated that we will ever know in this life. However, I think we will all be astounded at what waits for us in the next one. What do you think?

  3. Lydia Plunk Says:

    Greetings, Dee!

    The older I get the more amazed I am with my good fortune. The more I know, the more I am in awe of God’s creations.
    Not just in how beautiful things are when they are alive.
    A living maple tree is a beautiful thing. However, looking at the ripples and sheen in a plank of maple this morning, I saw how He created something that even after it was cut down and died, it still has purpose and beauty.
    If God would provide a “second act” for a tree where it can still serve with its beauty, I cannot imagine that it won’t do even better for His human children.
    I do not know what it will be for us. But I expect it to be something sublimely wonderful.

  4. MA Says:

    I love this subject!

    I was in an Art Journaling class taught by Hannah Hinchman several years ago. One of the other students was a real life rocket scientist from NASA. We were closely examining a pine cone, looking at the patterns of the scales when he explained the Fibonnaci series. I was astonished. Later, I had the good fortune to see a garden at the Chelsea flower show that was created and based on all the “equations” in the natural world.

    I cannot look at a pineapple, artichoke, sunflower, knapweed, pine cone without thinking how remarkable this whole world is. Beautiful.

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