*The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the Extraordinary Number of Nature, Art and Beauty*, Mario Livio (Headline Review 2003)

A good short popular guide to perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most irrational, of all numbers: the golden ratio or phi (φ), which is approximately equal to 1·6180339887498948482… Prominent in mathematics since at least the ancient Greeks and Euclid, phi is found in many places in nature too, from pineapples and sunflowers to the flight of hawks. Livio catalogues its appearances in both maths and nature, looking closely at the Fibonacci sequence and rabbit-breeding, before going on to debunk mistaken claims that phi also appears a lot in art, music and poetry. Dalí certainly used it, but da Vinci, Debussy and Virgil almost certainly didn’t. Nor, almost certainly, did the builders of the Parthenon and pyramids. Finally, he examines what has famously been called (by the physicist Eugene Wiegner) the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics: why is this human invention so good at describing the behaviour of the Universe? Livio quotes one of the best short answers I’ve seen:

Human logic was forced on us by the physical world and is therefore consistent with it. Mathematics derives from logic. That is why mathematics is consistent with the physical world. (ch. 9, “Is God a mathematician?”, pg. 252)

It’s not hard to recommend a book that quotes everyone from Johannes Kepler and William Blake to Lewis Carroll, Christopher Marlowe and Jef Raskin, “the creator of the Macintosh computer”, whose answer is given above. Recreational mathematicians should also find lots of ideas for further investigation, from fractal strings to the fascinating number patterns governed by Benford’s law. It isn’t just human beings who look after number one: as a leading figure, 1 turns up much more often in data from the real world, and in mathematical constructs like the Fibonacci sequence, than intuition would lead you to expect. If you’d like to learn more about that and about many other aspects of mathematics, hunt down a copy of this book.

Elsewhere other-posted:

• Roses Are Golden – φ and floral homicide