Philosophical Society of Washington

The Golden Ratio

Mario Livio
Space Telescope Science Institute

2173rd Meeting Abstract
Friday, February 20, 2004 at 8:15 PM


What do sunflowers, Salvador Dali's painting “Sacrament of the Last Supper”, and quasicrystals have in common? These very disparate elements share a certain number commonly known as the GOLDEN RATIO, expressed by the Greek letter PHI Φ. In a journey through mathematics and physics, botany and zoology, art and architecture, taking in fractals and psychology on the way, I will explore this extraordinary number, that has captured the imagination for millennia. This will also be a story of obsession—of phi-fixated individuals who have devoted their lives to discovering the properties of this number. This tale begins with the ancient Egyptian and Greek mathematicians, continues with the scientists and artists of the Renaissance, and takes us right to such scientists and masters of the modern world as Penrose, Debussy, and Le Corbusier. Even more importantly, I will address the intriguing question of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in explaining nature, economics, and evolutionary biology. Does mathematics exist independent of humans? Or is it just a creation of the human brain? Would an extraterrestrial intelligent civilization (if one exists) be familiar with PHI?

About the Author:

Dr. Mario Livio is a senior astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), the institute which conducts the scientific program of the Hubble Space Telescope. He received his Ph.D. in theoretical astrophysics from Tel Aviv University in Israel, was a professor in the Physics Dept. of the Technion-Israel Institute of technology from 1981 till 1991, and joined STScI in 1991. Dr Livio has published over 300 scientific papers and received numerous awards for research and for excellence in teaching. His interests span a broad range of topics in astrophysics, from cosmology to the emergence of intelligent life. Dr Livio has done much fundamental work on the topic of accretion of mass onto black holes, neutron stars, and white dwarfs, as well as on the formation of black holes and the possibility to extract energy from them. During the past five years Dr Livio's research focused on supernova explosions and their use in cosmology to determine the rate of expansion of the universe. In particular, he has shown that in spite of some uncertainties that still exist in theoretical models for supernovae, it is very likely that the recent findings that the expansion of our universe is accelerating are correct.

In addition to his scientific interests, Dr Livio is a self-proclaimed ‘art fanatic’ who owns many hundreds of art books. Recently, he combined his passions for science and art in two popular books, The Accelerating Universe, which appeared in 2000, and The Golden Ratio, which appeared at the beginning of November 2002. The former book discusses ‘beauty’ as an essential ingredient in fundamental theories of the universe. The latter discusses the amazing appearances of the peculiar number 1.618... in nature, the arts, and psychology.

Dr Livio lectures very frequently to the public. He has given 10 full day seminars to the public at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., and just during the past two years has given other public lectures at the Hayden Planetarium in New York, the Library of Congress, the Johnson Space Center in Houston, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco, the Institute of Astrophysics in Munich Germany, and many more.

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