(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Mathematics

“Everything we care about lies somewhere in the middle, where pattern and randomness interlace”*…

True randomness (it’s lumpy)

We tend dramatically to underestimate the role of randomness in the world…

Arkansas was one out away from the 2018 College World Series championship, leading Oregon State in the series and 3-2 in the ninth inning of the game when Cadyn Grenier lofted a foul pop down the right-field line. Three Razorbacks converged on the ball and were in position to make a routine play on it, only to watch it fall untouched to the ground in the midst of them. Had any one of them made the play, Arkansas would have been the national champion.

Nobody did.

Given “another lifeline,” Grenier hit an RBI single to tie the game before Trevor Larnach launched a two-run homer to give the Beavers a 5-3 lead and, ultimately, the game. “As soon as you see the ball drop, you know you have another life,” Grenier said. “That’s a gift.” The Beavers accepted the gift eagerly and went on win the championship the next day as Oregon State rode freshman pitcher Kevin Abel to a 5-0 win over Arkansas in the deciding game of the series. Abel threw a complete game shutout and retired the last 20 hitters he faced.

The highly unlikely happens pretty much all the time…

We readily – routinely – underestimate the power and impact of randomness in and on our lives. In his book, The Drunkard’s Walk, Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow employs the idea of the “drunkard’s [random] walk” to compare “the paths molecules follow as they fly through space, incessantly bumping, and being bumped by, their sister molecules,” with “our lives, our paths from college to career, from single life to family life, from first hole of golf to eighteenth.” 

Although countless random interactions seem to cancel each another out within large data sets, sometimes, “when pure luck occasionally leads to a lopsided preponderance of hits from some particular direction…a noticeable jiggle occurs.” When that happens, we notice the unlikely directional jiggle and build a carefully concocted story around it while ignoring the many, many random, counteracting collisions.

As Tversky and Kahneman have explained, “Chance is commonly viewed as a self-correcting process in which a deviation in one direction induces a deviation in the opposite direction to restore the equilibrium. In fact, deviations are not ‘corrected’ as a chance process unfolds, they are merely diluted.”

As Stephen Jay Gould famously argued, were we able to recreate the experiment of life on Earth a million different times, nothing would ever be the same, because evolution relies upon randomness. Indeed, the essence of history is contingency.

Randomness rules.

Luck matters. A lot. Yet, we tend dramatically to underestimate the role of randomness in the world.

The self-serving bias is our tendency to see the good stuff that happens as our doing (“we worked really hard and executed the game plan well”) while the bad stuff isn’t our fault (“It just wasn’t our night” or “we simply couldn’t catch a break” or “we would have won if the umpiring hadn’t been so awful”). Thus, desirable results are typically due to our skill and hard work — not luck — while lousy results are outside of our control and the offspring of being unlucky.

Two fine books undermine this outlook by (rightly) attributing a surprising amount of what happens to us — both good and bad – to luck. Michael Mauboussin’s The Success Equation seeks to untangle elements of luck and skill in sports, investing, and business. Ed Smith’s Luck considers a number of fields – international finance, war, sports, and even his own marriage – to examine how random chance influences the world around us. For example, Mauboussin describes the “paradox of skill” as follows: “As skill improves, performance becomes more consistent, and therefore luck becomes more important.” In investing, therefore (and for example), as the population of skilled investors has increased, the variation in skill has narrowed, making luck increasingly important to outcomes.

On account of the growth and development of the investment industry, John Bogle could quite consistently write his senior thesis at Princeton on the successes of active fund management and then go on to found Vanguard and become the primary developer and intellectual forefather of indexing. In other words, the ever-increasing aggregate skill (supplemented by massive computing power) of the investment world has come largely to cancel itself out.

After a big or revolutionary event, we tend to see it as having been inevitable. Such is the narrative fallacy. In this paper, ESSEC Business School’s Stoyan Sgourev notes that scholars of innovation typically focus upon the usual type of case, where incremental improvements rule the day. Sgourev moves past the typical to look at the unusual type of case, where there is a radical leap forward (equivalent to Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shifts in science), as with Picasso and Les Demoiselles

As Sgourev carefully argued, the Paris art market of Picasso’s time had recently become receptive to the commercial possibilities of risk-taking. Thus, artistic innovation was becoming commercially viable. Breaking with the past was then being encouraged for the first time. It would soon be demanded.

Most significantly for our purposes, Sgourev’s analysis of Cubism suggests that having an exceptional idea isn’t enough. For radical innovation really to take hold, market conditions have to be right, making its success a function of luck and timing as much as genius. Note that Van Gogh — no less a genius than Picasso — never sold a painting in his lifetime.

As noted above, we all like to think that our successes are earned and that only our failures are due to luck – bad luck. But the old expression – it’s better to be lucky than good – is at least partly true. That said, it’s best to be lucky *and* good. As a consequence, in all probabilistic fields (which is nearly all of them), the best performers dwell on process and diversify their bets. You should do the same…

As [Nate] Silver emphasizes in The Signal and the Noise, we readily overestimate the degree of predictability in complex systems [and t]he experts we see in the media are much too sure of themselves (I wrote about this problem in our industry from a slightly different angle…). Much of what we attribute to skill is actually luck.

Plan accordingly.

Taking the unaccountable into account: “Randomness Rules,” from Bob Seawright (@RPSeawright), via @JVLast

[image above: source]

* James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood


As we contemplate chance, we might spare a thought for Oskar Morgenstern; he died on this date in 1977. An economist who fled Nazi Germany for Princeton, he collaborated with the mathematician John von Neumann to write Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, published in 1944, which is recognized as the first book on game theory— thus co-founding the field.

Game theory was developed extensively in the 1950s, and has become widely recognized as an important tool in many fields– perhaps especially in the study of evolution. Eleven game theorists have won the economics Nobel Prize, and John Maynard Smith was awarded the Crafoord Prize for his application of evolutionary game theory.

Game theory’s roots date back (at least) to the 1654 letters between Pascal and Fermat, which (along with work by Cardano and Huygens) marked the beginning of probability theory. (See Peter Bernstein’s marvelous Against the Gods.) The application of probability (Bayes’ rule, discrete and continuous random variables, and the computation of expectations) accounts for the utility of game theory; the role of randomness (along with the behavioral psychology of a game’s participants) explain why it’s not a perfect predictor.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 26, 2021 at 1:00 am

“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite”*…

For 50 years, mathematicians have believed that the total number of real numbers is unknowable. A new proof suggests otherwise…

Infinity comes in many sizes. In 1873, the German mathematician Georg Cantor shook math to the core when he discovered that the “real” numbers that fill the number line — most with never-ending digits, like 3.14159… — outnumber “natural” numbers like 1, 2 and 3, even though there are infinitely many of both.

Infinite sets of numbers mess with our intuition about size, so as a warmup, compare the natural numbers {1, 2, 3, …} with the odd numbers {1, 3, 5, …}. You might think the first set is bigger, since only half its elements appear in the second set. Cantor realized, though, that the elements of the two sets can be put in a one-to-one correspondence. You can pair off the first elements of each set (1 and 1), then pair off their second elements (2 and 3), then their third (3 and 5), and so on forever, covering all elements of both sets. In this sense, the two infinite sets have the same size, or what Cantor called “cardinality.” He designated their size with the cardinal number 0 (“aleph-zero”).

But Cantor discovered that natural numbers can’t be put into one-to-one correspondence with the continuum of real numbers. For instance, try to pair 1 with 1.00000… and 2 with 1.00001…, and you’ll have skipped over infinitely many real numbers (like 1.000000001…). You can’t possibly count them all; their cardinality is greater than that of the natural numbers.

Sizes of infinity don’t stop there. Cantor discovered that any infinite set’s power set — the set of all subsets of its elements — has larger cardinality than it does. Every power set itself has a power set, so that cardinal numbers form an infinitely tall tower of infinities.

Standing at the foot of this forbidding edifice, Cantor focused on the first couple of floors. He managed to prove that the set formed from all the different ways of ordering natural numbers (from smallest to largest, for example, or with all odd numbers first) has cardinality 1, one level up from the natural numbers. Moreover, each of these “order types” encodes a real number.

His continuum hypothesis asserts that this is exactly the size of the continuum — that there are precisely 1 real numbers. In other words, the cardinality of the continuum immediately follow 0, the cardinality of the natural numbers, with no sizes of infinity in between.

But to Cantor’s immense distress, he couldn’t prove it.

In 1900, the mathematician David Hilbert put the continuum hypothesis first on his famous list of 23 math problems to solve in the 20th century. Hilbert was enthralled by the nascent mathematics of infinity — “Cantor’s paradise,” as he called it — and the continuum hypothesis seemed like its lowest-hanging fruit.

To the contrary, shocking revelations last century turned Cantor’s question into a deep epistemological conundrum.

The trouble arose in 1931, when the Austrian-born logician Kurt Gödel discovered that any set of axioms that you might posit as a foundation for mathematics will inevitably be incomplete. There will always be questions that your list of ground rules can’t settle, true mathematical facts that they can’t prove. As Gödel suspected right away, the continuum hypothesis is such a case: a problem that’s independent of the standard axioms of mathematics.

These axioms, 10 in all, are known as ZFC (for “Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms with the axiom of choice”), and they undergird almost all of modern math. The axioms describe basic properties of collections of objects, or sets. Since virtually everything mathematical can be built out of sets (the empty set {} denotes 0, for instance; {{}} denotes 1; {{},{{}}} denotes 2, and so on), the rules of sets suffice for constructing proofs throughout math.

In 1940, Gödel showed that you can’t use the ZFC axioms to disprove the continuum hypothesis. Then in 1963, the American mathematician Paul Cohen showed the opposite —you can’t use them to prove it, either. Cohen’s proof, together with Gödel’s, means the continuum hypothesis is independent of the ZFC axioms; they can have it either way.

In addition to the continuum hypothesis, most other questions about infinite sets turn out to be independent of ZFC as well. This independence is sometimes interpreted to mean that these questions have no answer, but most set theorists see that as a profound misconception.

They believe the continuum has a precise size; we just need new tools of logic to figure out what that is. These tools will come in the form of new axioms. “The axioms do not settle these problems,” said Magidor, so “we must extend them to a richer axiom system.” It’s ZFC as a means to mathematical truth that’s lacking — not truth itself.

Ever since Cohen, set theorists have sought to shore up the foundations of infinite math by adding at least one new axiom to ZFC. This axiom should illuminate the structure of infinite sets, engender natural and beautiful theorems, avoid fatal contradictions, and, of course, settle Cantor’s question…

Two rival axioms emerged that do just that. For decades, they were suspected of being logically incompatible.

In October 2018, David Asperó was on holiday in Italy, gazing out a car window as his girlfriend drove them to their bed-and-breakfast, when it came to him: the missing step of what’s now a landmark new proof about the sizes of infinity. “It was this flash experience,” he said.

Asperó, a mathematician at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, contacted the collaborator with whom he’d long pursued the proof, Ralf Schindler of the University of Münster in Germany, and described his insight. “It was completely incomprehensible to me,” Schindler said. But eventually, the duo turned the phantasm into solid logic.

Their proof, which appeared in May in the Annals of Mathematics, unites two rival axioms that have been posited as competing foundations for infinite mathematics. Asperó and Schindler showed that one of these axioms implies the other, raising the likelihood that both axioms — and all they intimate about infinity — are true…

There are an infinite number of infinities. Which one corresponds to the real numbers? “How Many Numbers Exist? Infinity Proof Moves Math Closer to an Answer.”

[TotH to MK]

* William Blake


As we contemplate counting, we might spare a thought for Georg Friedrich Bernhard Riemann; he died on this date in 1866. A mathematician who made contributions to analysis, number theory, and differential geometry, he is remembered (among other things) for his 1859 paper on the prime-counting function, containing the original statement of the Riemann hypothesis, regarded as one of the most influential papers in analytic number theory.


“Several thousand years from now, nothing about you as an individual will matter. But what you did will have huge consequences.”*…

In 2013, a philosopher and ecologist named Timothy Morton proposed that humanity had entered a new phase. What had changed was our relationship to the nonhuman. For the first time, Morton wrote, we had become aware that “nonhuman beings” were “responsible for the next moment of human history and thinking.” The nonhuman beings Morton had in mind weren’t computers or space aliens but a particular group of objects that were “massively distributed in time and space.” Morton called them “hyperobjects”: all the nuclear material on earth, for example, or all the plastic in the sea. “Everyone must reckon with the power of rising waves and ultraviolet light,” Morton wrote, in “Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World.” Those rising waves were being created by a hyperobject: all the carbon in the atmosphere.

Hyperobjects are real, they exist in our world, but they are also beyond us. We know a piece of Styrofoam when we see it—it’s white, spongy, light as air—and yet fourteen million tons of Styrofoam are produced every year; chunks of it break down into particles that enter other objects, including animals. Although Styrofoam is everywhere, one can never point to all the Styrofoam in the world and say, “There it is.” Ultimately, Morton writes, whatever bit of Styrofoam you may be interacting with at any particular moment is only a “local manifestation” of a larger whole that exists in other places and will exist on this planet millennia after you are dead. Relative to human beings, therefore, Styrofoam is “hyper” in terms of both space and time. It’s not implausible to say that our planet is a place for Styrofoam more than it is a place for people.

When “Hyperobjects” was published, philosophers largely ignored it. But Morton, who uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” quickly found a following among artists, science-fiction writers, pop stars, and high-school students. The international curator and art-world impresario Hans Ulrich Obrist began citing Morton’s ideas; Morton collaborated on a talk with Laurie Anderson and helped inspire “Reality Machines,” an installation by the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. Kim Stanley Robinson and Jeff VanderMeer—prominent sci-fi writers who also deal with ecological themes—have engaged with Morton’s work; Björk blurbed Morton’s book “Being Ecological,” writing, “I have been reading Tim Morton’s books for a while and I like them a lot.”

The problem with hyperobjects is that you cannot experience one, not completely. You also can’t not experience one. They bump into you, or you bump into them; they bug you, but they are also so massive and complex that you can never fully comprehend what’s bugging you. This oscillation between experiencing and not experiencing cannot be resolved. It’s just the way hyperobjects are.

Take oil: nature at its most elemental; black ooze from the depths of the earth. And yet oil is also the stuff of cars, plastic, the Industrial Revolution; it collapses any distinction between nature and not-nature. Driving to the port, we were surrounded by oil and its byproducts—the ooze itself, and the infrastructure that transports it, refines it, holds it, and consumes it—and yet, Morton said, we could never really see the hyperobject of capital-“O” Oil: it shapes our lives but is too big to see.

Since around 2010, Morton has become associated with a philosophical movement known as object-oriented ontology, or O.O.O. The point of O.O.O. is that there is a vast cosmos out there in which weird and interesting shit is happening to all sorts of objects, all the time. In a 1999 lecture, “Object-Oriented Philosophy,” Graham Harman, the movement’s central figure, explained the core idea:

The arena of the world is packed with diverse objects, their forces unleashed and mostly unloved. Red billiard ball smacks green billiard ball. Snowflakes glitter in the light that cruelly annihilates them, while damaged submarines rust along the ocean floor. As flour emerges from mills and blocks of limestone are compressed by earthquakes, gigantic mushrooms spread in the Michigan forest. While human philosophers bludgeon each other over the very possibility of “access” to the world, sharks bludgeon tuna fish and icebergs smash into coastlines…

We are not, as many of the most influential twentieth-century philosophers would have it, trapped within language or mind or culture or anything else. Reality is real, and right there to experience—but it also escapes complete knowability. One must confront reality with the full realization that you’ll always be missing something in the confrontation. Objects are always revealing something, and always concealing something, simply because they are Other. The ethics implied by such a strangely strange world hold that every single object everywhere is real in its own way. This realness cannot be avoided or backed away from. There is no “outside”—just the entire universe of entities constantly interacting, and you are one of them.

… “[Covid-19 is] the ultimate hyperobject,” Morton said. “The hyperobject of our age. It’s literally inside us.” We talked for a bit about fear of the virus—Morton has asthma, and suffers from sleep apnea. “I feel bad for subtitling the hyperobjects book ‘Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World,’ ” Morton said. “That idea scares people. I don’t mean ‘end of the world’ the way they think I mean it. But why do that to people? Why scare them?”

What Morton means by “the end of the world” is that a world view is passing away. The passing of this world view means that there is no “world” anymore. There’s just an infinite expanse of objects, which have as much power to determine us as we have to determine them. Part of the work of confronting strange strangeness is therefore grappling with fear, sadness, powerlessness, grief, despair. “Somewhere, a bird is singing and clouds pass overhead,” Morton writes, in “Being Ecological,” from 2018. “You stop reading this book and look around you. You don’t have to be ecological. Because you are ecological.” It’s a winsome and terrifying idea. Learning to see oneself as an object among objects is destabilizing—like learning “to navigate through a bad dream.” In many ways, Morton’s project is not philosophical but therapeutic. They have been trying to prepare themselves for the seismic shifts that are coming as the world we thought we knew transforms.

For the philosopher of “hyperobjects”—vast, unknowable things that are bigger than ourselves—the coronavirus is further proof that we live in a dark ecology: “Timothy Morton’s Hyper-Pandemic.”

* “Several thousand years from now, nothing about you as an individual will matter. But what you did will have huge consequences. This is the paradox of the ecological age. And it is why action to change global warming must be massive and collective.” – Timothy Morton, Being Ecological


As we find our place, we might send classical birthday greetings to James Clerk Maxwell; he was born on this date in 1831.  A mathematician and and physicist, he calculated (circa 1862) that the speed of propagation of an electromagnetic field is approximately that of the speed of light– kicking off his work in uniting electricity, magnetism, and light… that’s to say, formulating the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, which is considered the “second great unification in physics” (after the first, realized by Isaac Newton). Though he was the apotheosis of classical (Newtonian) physics, Maxwell laid the foundation for modern physics, starting the search for radio waves and paving the way for such fields as special relativity and quantum mechanics.  In the Millennium Poll – a survey of the 100 most prominent physicists at the turn of the 21st century – Maxwell was voted the third greatest physicist of all time, behind only Newton and Einstein.



“The urge to gamble is so universal and its practice so pleasurable that I assume it must be evil”*…

Gambling has existed since antiquity, but in the past 30 years it’s grown at a spectacular rate, turbocharged by the internet and globalisation. Problem gambling has grown accordingly, and become particularly prevalent in the teenage population. Even more troublingly, a study in 2013 reported that slightly over 90 per cent of problem gamblers don’t seek professional help. Gambling addiction is part of a suite of damaging and unhealthy behaviours that people do despite warnings, such as smoking, drinking or compulsive video gaming. It draws on a multitude of cognitive, social and psychobiological factors.

Psychological and medical studies have found that some people are more likely to develop a gambling disorder than others, depending on their social condition, age, education and experiences such as trauma, domestic violence and drug abuse. Problem gambling also involves complex brain chemistry, as gambling stimulates the release of multiple neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine, which in turn create feelings of pleasure and the attendant urge to maintain them. Serotonin is known as the happiness hormone, and typically follows a sense of release from stress or fear. Dopamine is associated with intense pleasure, released when we’re engaged in activities that deserve a reward, and precisely when that reward occurs – seeing the ball landing on the number we’ve bet on, or hearing the sound of the slot machine showing a winning payline.

For the most part, gambling addiction is viewed as a medical and psychological problem, though this hasn’t resulted in widely effective prevention and treatment programmes. That might be because the research has often focused on the origins and prevalence of addiction, and less on the cognitive premises and mechanisms that actually take place in the brain. It’s a controversial area, but this arguable lack of clinical effectiveness doesn’t appear to be specific to gambling; it applies to other addictions as well, and might even extend to some superstitions and irrational beliefs.

Can a proper presentation of the mathematical facts help gambling addiction? While most casino moguls simply trust the mathematics – the probability theory and applied statistics behind the games – gamblers exhibit a strange array of positions relative to the role of maths. While no study has offered an exhaustive taxonomy, what we know for sure is that some simply don’t care about it; others care about it, trust it, and try to use it in their favour by developing ‘winning strategies’; while others care about it and interpret it in making their gambling predictions.

Certain problem gambling programmes frame the distortions associated with gambling as an effect of a poor mathematical knowledge. Some clinicians argue that reducing gambling to mere mathematical models and bare numbers – without sparkling instances of success and the ‘adventurous’ atmosphere of a casino – can lead to a loss of interest in the games, a strategy known as ‘reduction’ or ‘deconstruction’. The warning messages involve statements along the lines of: ‘Be aware! There is a big problem with those irrational beliefs. Don’t think like that!’ But whether this kind of messaging really works is an open question. Beginning a couple of decades ago, several studies were conducted to test the hypothesis that teaching basic statistics and applied probability theory to problem gamblers would change their behaviour. Overall, these studies have yielded contradictory, non-conclusive results, and some found that mathematical education yielded no change in behaviour. So what’s missing?…

Catalin Barboianu, a gaming mathematician, philosopher of science, and problem-gambling researcher, asks if philosophers and mathematicians struggle with probability, can gamblers really hope to grasp their losing game? “Mathematics for Gamblers.”

For a deeper dive, see Alec Wilkinson’s fascinating New Yorker piece, “What Would Jesus Bet? A math whiz hones the optimal poker strategy.”

For cultural context (and an appreciation of the broader importance of the issue), see “How Gambling Mathematics Took Over The World.”

And for historical context, see (one of your correspondent’s all-time favorite books) Peter Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk.

[image above: source]

* Heywood Hale Broun


As we roll the dice, we might spare a thought for Srinivasa Ramanujan; he died on this date in 1920. A largely self-taught mathematician from Madras, he initially developed his own mathematical research in isolation: according to Hans Eysenck: “He tried to interest the leading professional mathematicians in his work, but failed for the most part. What he had to show them was too novel, too unfamiliar, and additionally presented in unusual ways; they could not be bothered.” Seeking mathematicians who could better understand his work, in 1913 he began a postal partnership with the English mathematician G. H. Hardy at the University of Cambridge, England. Recognizing Ramanujan’s work as extraordinary, Hardy arranged for him to travel to Cambridge. In his notes, Hardy commented that Ramanujan had produced groundbreaking new theorems, including some that “defeated me completely; I had never seen anything in the least like them before.”

Ramanujan made substantial contributions to mathematical analysisnumber theoryinfinite series, and continued fractions, including solutions to mathematical problems then considered unsolvable. During his short life, he independently compiled nearly 3,900 results (mostly identities and equations).  Many were completely novel; his original and highly unconventional results, such as the Ramanujan prime, the Ramanujan theta functionpartition formulae, and mock theta functions, have opened entire new areas of work and inspired a vast amount of further research.  Nearly all his claims have now been proven correct.

See also: “Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater,” and enjoy the 2015 film on Ramanujan, “The Man Who Knew Infinity.”


“The golden ratio is the key”*…

… in any case, to good design. So, how did it come into currency? Western tradition tends to credit the Greeks and Euclid (via Fibonacci), while acknowledging that they may have been inspired by the Egyptians. But recent research has surfaced a a more tantalizing prospect:

Design remains a largely white profession, with Black people still vastly underrepresented – making up just 3% of the design industry, according to a 2019 survey

Part of the lack of representation might have had to do with the fact that prevailing tenets of design seemed to hew closely to Western traditions, with purported origins in Ancient Greece and the schools out of Germany, Russia and the Netherlands deemed paragons of the field. A “Black aesthetic” has seemed to be altogether absent.

But what if a uniquely African aesthetic has been deeply embedded in Western design all along? 

Through my research collaboration with design scholar Ron Eglash, author of “African Fractals,” I discovered that the design style that undergirds much of the graphic design profession today – the Swiss design tradition that uses the golden ratio – may have roots in African culture

The golden ratio refers to the mathematical expression of “1: phi,” where phi is an irrational number, roughly 1.618. 

Visually, this ratio can be represented as the “golden rectangle,” with the ratio of side “a” to side “b” the same as the ratio of the sides “a”-plus-“b” to “a.” 

The golden rectangle. If you divide ‘a’ by ‘b’ and ‘a’-plus-‘b’ by ‘a,’ you get phi, which is roughly 1.618

Create a square on one side of the golden rectangle, and the remaining space will form another golden rectangle. Repeat that process in each new golden rectangle, subdividing in the same direction, and you’ll get a golden spiral [the image at the top of this post], arguably the more popular and recognizable representation of the golden ratio.

This ratio is called “golden” or “divine” because it’s visually pleasing, and some scholars argue that the human eye can more readily interpret images that incorporate it.

For these reasons, you’ll see the golden ratio, rectangle and spiral incorporated into the design of public spaces and emulated in the artwork in museum halls and hanging on gallery walls. It’s also reflected in naturearchitecture, and design – and it forms a key component of modern Swiss design.

The Swiss design style emerged in the 20th century from an amalgamation of Russian, Dutch and German aesthetics. It’s been called one of the most important movements in the history of graphic design and provided the foundation for the rise of modernist graphic design in North America.

The Helvetica font, which originated in Switzerland, and Swiss graphic compositions – from ads to book covers, web pages and posters – are often organized according to the golden rectangle. Swiss architect Le Corbusier famously centered his design philosophy on the golden ratio, which he described as “[resounding] in man by an organic inevitability.”

An ad for Swiss Air by graphic designer Josef Müller-Brockmann incorporates the golden ratio. Grafic Notes

Graphic design scholars – represented particularly by Greek architecture scholar Marcus Vitruvius Pollo – have tended to credit early Greek culture for incorporating the golden rectangle into design. They’ll point to the Parthenon as a notable example of a building that implemented the ratio in its construction.

But empirical measurements don’t support the Parthenon’s purported golden proportions, since its actual ratio is 4:9 – two whole numbers. As I’ve pointed out, the Greeks, notably the mathematician Euclid, were aware of the golden ratio, but it was mentioned only in the context of the relationship between two lines or figures. No Greek sources use the phrase “golden rectangle” or suggest its use in design.

In fact, ancient Greek writings on architecture almost always stress the importance of whole number ratios, not the golden ratio. To the Greeks, whole number ratios represented Platonic concepts of perfection, so it’s far more likely that the Parthenon would have been built in accordance with these ideals.

If not from the ancient Greeks, where, then, did the golden rectangle originate? 

In Africa, design practices tend to focus on bottom-up growth and organic, fractal forms. They are created in a sort of feedback loop, what computer scientists call “recursion.” You start with a basic shape and then divide it into smaller versions of itself, so that the subdivisions are embedded in the original shape. What emerges is called a “self-similar” pattern, because the whole can be found in the parts… 

Robert Bringhurst, author of the canonical work “The Elements of Typographic Style,” subtly hints at the golden ratio’s African origins:

“If we look for a numerical approximation to this ratio, 1: phi, we will find it in something called the Fibonacci series, named for the thirteenth-century mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci. Though he died two centuries before Gutenberg, Fibonacci is important in the history of European typography as well as mathematics. He was born in Pisa but studied in North Africa.”

These scaling patterns can be seen in ancient Egyptian design, and archaeological evidence shows that African cultural influences traveled down the Nile river. For instance, Egyptologist Alexander Badaway found the Fibonacci Series’ use in the layout of the Temple of Karnak. It is arranged in the same way African villages grow: starting with a sacred altar or “seed shape” before accumulating larger spaces that spiral outward.

Given that Fibonacci specifically traveled to North Africa to learn about mathematics, it is not unreasonable to speculate that Fibonacci brought the sequence from North Africa. Its first appearance in Europe is not in ancient Greece, but in “Liber Abaci,” Fibonacci’s book of math published in Italy in 1202. 

Why does all of this matter?

Well, in many ways, it doesn’t. We care about “who was first” only because we live in a system obsessed with proclaiming some people winners – the intellectual property owners that history should remember. That same system declares some people losers, removed from history and, subsequently, their lands, undeserving of any due reparations. 

Yet as many strive to live in a just, equitable and peaceful world, it is important to restore a more multicultural sense of intellectual history, particularly within graphic design’s canon. And once Black graphic design students see the influences of their predecessors, perhaps they will be inspired and motivated anew to recover that history – and continue to build upon its legacy.

The longer-than-we’ve-acknowledged history of the Golden Ratio in design; Audrey Bennett (@audreygbennett) unpacks “The African roots of Swiss design.”

For more on Fibonacci‘s acquisitive habits, see this earlier post.

* Sir Edward Victor Appleton, Nobel Laureate in physics (1947)


As we ruminate on relationships, we might send careful-calculated birthday greetings to Mary Jackson; she was born on this date in 1921. A mathematician and aerospace engineer, she worked at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia (part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics [NACA], which in 1958 was succeeded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA]) for most of her career. She began as a “computer” at the segregated West Area Computing division in 1951; in 1958, she became NASA’s first black female engineer.

Jackson’s story features in the 2016 non-fiction book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. She is one of the three protagonists in Hidden Figures, the film adaptation released the same year. In 2019, she was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal; in 2020 the Washington, D.C. headquarters of NASA was renamed the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters.


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