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Posts Tagged ‘Beauty

“Sooner or later, everything old is new again”*…


Madame Yale

Maude Mayberg, a.k.a. Madame Yale, in her “laboratory”


On an April afternoon in 1897, thousands of women packed the Boston Theatre to see the nation’s most beguiling female entrepreneur, a 45-year-old former homemaker whose talent for personal branding would rival that of any Instagram celebrity today. She called herself Madame Yale. Over the course of several hours and multiple outfit changes, she preached her “Religion of Beauty,” regaling the audience with tales of history’s most beautiful women, a group that included Helen of Troy, the Roman goddess Diana and, apparently, Madame Yale.

The sermon was her 11th public appearance in Boston in recent years, and it also covered the various lotions and potions—products that Yale just happened to sell—that she said had transformed her from a sallow, fat, exhausted woman into the beauty who stood on stage: her tall, hourglass figure draped at one point in cascading white silk, her blond ringlets falling around a rosy-cheeked, heart-shaped face. Applause thundered. The Boston Herald praised her “offer of Health and Beauty” in a country where “every woman wants to be well and well-looking.”

Madame Yale had been delivering “Beauty Talks” coast to coast since 1892, cannily promoting herself in ways that would be familiar to consumers in 2020. She was a true pioneer in what business gurus would call the wellness space—a roughly $4.5 trillion industry globally today—and that achievement alone should command attention. Curiously, though, she went from celebrated to infamous virtually overnight, and her story, largely overlooked by historians, is all the more captivating as a cautionary tale…

A century before today’s celebrity health gurus, an American businesswoman was a beauty with a brand: “Madame Yale Made a Fortune With the 19th Century’s Version of Goop.”

* Stephen King’s version of an age-old adage (in The Colorado Kid)


As we contemplate comeliness, we might spare a thought for writer who explored our fascination with fascinating, Philip Kindred Dick; he died on this date in 1982.  A novelist, short story writer, essayist and philosopher, Dick published 44 novels and 121 short stories, nearly all in the Science Fiction genre.  While he was recognized only within his field in his lifetime, and lived near poverty for much of his adult life, twelve popular films and TV series have been based on his work since his death in 1982 (including Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Paycheck, Next, Screamers, The Adjustment BureauImpostor, and the Netflix series The Man in the High Castle).  In 2005, Time magazine named Ubik one of the hundred greatest English-language novels published since 1923; and in 2007, Dick became the first science fiction writer to be included in The Library of America series.


We might also note that it’s the birthday of Chris Martin, front man of the inexplicably-popular pop group Coldplay, and the “consciously uncoupled” ex of Gwyneth Paltrow, the heir to Madame Yale.

Chris_Martin-viva-cropped source



Written by LW

March 2, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it”*…



Keat urn

A tracing of an engraving of the Sosibios vase by John Keats


At least as far back as the ancient Greeks, poets and philosophers have struggled to define the nature of beauty. More recently—that is, for the past 150 years—psychologists have joined the effort to discover why we find certain sounds and images aesthetically appealing.

Answers remain elusive, and a new analysis in the journal Current Biology helps explain why. It finds some preferences—including our inclination to favor curves over angles—appear to be universal.

However, New York University psychologists Aenne Brielmann and Denis Pelli report that individual differences “outweigh general tendencies in most aesthetic judgments. Even for faces, which are popularly supposed to be consistently judged, individual taste accounts for about half the variance in attractiveness ratings.”

To a large extent, beauty really does seem to be in the eye—and brain—of the beholder…

A new analysis finds a few widely shared aesthetic preferences, and a whole lot of individual and cultural variation: “Beauty is, mostly, in the eye of the beholder.”

* Confucius


As we examine the exquisite, we might send intricately beautiful birthday greetings to Jan Švankmajer; he was born on this date in 1934.  A self-proclaimed surrealist artist who has worked in many media, he is best known as a filmmaker, more specifically, as a stop-motion animator whose works have influenced Terry Gilliam, the Brothers Quay, and many others.

Here, an example of his work:


Written by LW

September 4, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Beauty is no quality in things themselves”*…


“The Triumph of Venus,” by Francis Boucher (1740).

We’re all human—so despite the vagaries of cultural context, might there exist a universal beauty that overrides the where and when? Might there be unchanging features of human nature that condition our creative choices, a timeless melody that guides the improvisations of the everyday? There has been a perpetual quest for such universals, because of their value as a North Star that could guide our creative choices…

Scientists have struggled to find universals that permanently link our species. Although we come to the table with biological predispositions, a million years of bending, breaking and blending have diversified our species’ preferences. We are the products not only of biological evolution but also of cultural evolution. Although the idea of universal beauty is appealing, it doesn’t capture the multiplicity of creation across place and time. Beauty is not genetically preordained. As we explore creatively, we expand aesthetically: everything new that we view as beautiful adds to the word’s definition. That is why we sometimes look at great works of the past and find them unappealing, while we find splendor in objects that previous generations wouldn’t have accepted. What characterizes us as a species is not a particular aesthetic preference, but the multiple, meandering paths of creativity itself…

Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman offer an explanation as to “Why Beauty Is Not Universal.”

* “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”  –  David Hume, Of the Standard of Taste and Other Essays


As we examine aesthetics, we might spare a thought for aesthete-in-chief Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde; the novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and master of the bon mot died on this date in 1900.

The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

(…more of Wilde’s wisdom at Wikiquote)



Written by LW

November 30, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty”*…


Maryam Mirzakhani did not enjoy mathematics to begin with. She dreamed of being an author or politician, but as a top student at her all-girls school in Tehran she was still disappointed when her first-year maths exam went poorly. Her teacher believed her – wrongly – to have no particular affinity with the subject.

Soon that would all change. “My first memory of mathematics is probably the time [my brother] told me about the problem of adding numbers from 1 to 100,” she recalled later. This was the story of Carl Gauss, the 18th-century genius whose schoolteacher set him this problem as a timewasting exercise – only for his precocious pupil to calculate the answer in a matter of seconds.

The obvious solution is simple but slow: 1+2+3+4. Gauss’s solution is quicker to execute, and far more cunning. It goes like this: divide the numbers into two groups: from 1 to 50, and from 51 to 100. Then, add them together in pairs, starting with the lowest (1) and the highest (100), and working inwards (2+99, 3+98, and so on). There are 50 pairs; the sum of each pair is 101; the answer is 5050. “That was the first time I enjoyed a beautiful solution,” Mirzakhani told the Clay Mathematics Institute in 2008.

Since then, her appreciation for beautiful solutions has taken her a long way from Farzanegan middle school. At 17 she won her first gold medal at the International Mathematics Olympiad. At 27 she earned a doctorate from Harvard University. The Blumenthal Award and Satter Prize followed, and in 2014 she became the first woman to be awarded the Fields Medal, the highest honour a mathematician can obtain.

Before this particular brand of wonder became perceptible to Mirzakhani, she experienced feelings many of us can relate to: to the indifferent, her subject can seem “cold”, even “pointless”. Yet those who persist will be rewarded with glimpses of conceptual glory, as if gifted upon them by a capricious god: “The beauty of mathematics,” she warned, “only shows itself to more patient followers.”

This concept of “beauty” found in maths has been referred to over centuries by many others; though, like beauty itself, it is notoriously difficult to define…

For an experienced mathematician, the greatest equations are beautiful as well as useful. Can the rest of us see what they see?  “What makes maths beautiful?

[From The New Humanist, via the ever-illuminating 3 Quarks Daily]

Maryam Mirzakhani died last Friday, a victim of breast cancer; she was 40.  As Peter Sarnak (a mathematician at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study) said, her passing is “a big loss and shock to the mathematical community worldwide.”  See also here.

* Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy


As we accede to awe, we might spare a thought for Andrey (Andrei) Andreyevich Markov; he died on this date in 1922.  A Russian mathematician, he helped to develop the theory of stochastic processes, especially those now called Markov chains: sequences of random variables in which the future variable is determined by the present variable but is independent of the way in which the present state arose from its predecessors.  (For example, the probability of winning at the game of Monopoly can be determined using Markov chains.)  His work on the study of the probability of mutually-dependent events has been developed and widely applied to the biological and social sciences.



Written by LW

July 20, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics”*…


Long-time readers will know of your correspondent’s admiration and affection for Martin Gardner (c.f., e.g., here and here).  So imagine his delight to learn from @MartyKrasney of this…

Martin wrote about 300 articles for Scientific American between 1952 and 1998, most famously in his legendary “Mathematical Games” column starting in Jan 1957. Many of those articles are now viewed as classics, from his seminal piece on hexaflexagons in Dec 1956—which led to the offer to write a regular column for the magazine—to his breakthrough essays on pentomnoes, rep-tiles, the Soma cube, the art of Escher, the fourth dimension, sphere packing, Conway’s game of Life, Newcomb’s paradox, Mandelbrot’s fractals, Penrose tiles, and RSA cryptography, not forgetting the recurring numerological exploits of his alter ego Dr. Matrix, and the tongue-in-cheek April Fool column from 1975.

Many of those gems just listed were associated with beautiful graphics and artwork, so it’s no surprise that Martin scored some Scientific American covers over the years, though as we’ll see below, there’s surprisingly little overlap between his “greatest hits” and his “cover stories.”

It’s worth noting that, just as the magazine editors selected the titles under which his original articles appeared—he generally ditched those in favor of his own when he republished them in the spin-off books—artwork submitted was often altered by Scientific American staff artists…

The full dozen, replete with the cover art, at “A Gardner’s Dozen—Martin’s Scientific American Cover Stories.”

* G.H. Hardy


As we agree with G.K Chesterton that “the difference between the poet and the mathematician is that the poet tries to get his head into the heavens while the mathematician tries to get the heavens into his head,” we might send carefully calculated birthday greetings to John Charles Fields, he was born on this date in 1863.  A mathematician of accomplishment, he is better remembered as a tireless advocate of the field and its importance– and best remembered as the founder of the award posthumously named for him:  The Fields Medal, familiarly known as “the Nobel of mathematics.”



Written by LW

May 14, 2017 at 1:01 am

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