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The wonders of mathematics

Ambassador Subir Kumar Bhattacharyya

John Keats’ famous line “beauty is truth, truth beauty” is as fitting to the majesty of nature as it
is in the realm of mathematics and science. Scientists believe in and rely on elegance, and unless
a theory that describes some fundamental physical laws of nature is expressible in mathematical
formula and is beautiful to look at, meaning that the formula must be concise, exquisite and
appealing, they keep on trying to find an attractive one. Einstein’s Theories of Relativity both the
Special theory and the General Theory are succinct and elegant, but they are so vast and far-
reaching that the whole cosmology and astrophysics are being built on the very foundation of his
theories. The field equations of General Relativity are simple to look at, but they can be very
complicated when applied to solving various mysteries of the predictions of the Theory. James
Clerk Maxwell enunciated just a set of four partial differential equations to describe the
properties of electricity and magnetism. In fact, deep mysteries of nature reveal themselves in a
simple and precise manner and follow mathematical formulations. This is itself a mystery!
Mysteries always evoke curiosity in mankind and propel them into undertaking investigations to
unfold them. This is human nature, and these instructions are embedded in our genes. The
purpose of science teaching to students should be primarily to inspire awe and curiosity. Einstein
said, “The fairest thing we can is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion, which stands at
the cradle of true art and science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel
amazement is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.”

Mathematics is the language of the universe. Every natural pattern of growth or movement
conforms inevitably to one or more geometric shapes. From the molecules of our DNA to the
galaxy that spirals within, life and its forms emerge out of geometric codes. Every student should
be taught mathematics by inspiring wonder and reverence. Today, I shall deliberate specifically
on pi and phi. Pi is the ratio between circumference and diameter of a circle. The value is 22
divided by 7 or 3.1…. It’s a rational number because it can be expressed as the ratio of two
numbers 22 and 7. Any shape based on circles will use pi, eg, circumference, area of circles, half
circles and so on. Pi is used in measuring surface area and volume of cylinders, spheres,
hemispheres, cones, truncated cones, donut shapes and the like. Pi can be expressed in another
way. While, angle is generally measured in degrees, the other common measurement for angles
is radians. For this measurement, consider the unit circle or a circle of radius 1, whose center is
the vertex of the angle in question. Then the angle cuts off an arc of the circle, and the length of
that arc is the radian measure of the angle. It is easy to convert between degree measurement and
radian measurement. The circumference of the entire circle is 2 multiplied by pi and radius. So it
follows that 360° equals 2 radians or pi radians equals 180 degree. In calculating probabilities
of some events, it turns out that pi comes into play unexpectedly. Let me give an example. If you
divide by a ruler, say, one sheet of A4 size paper into 10 equal rows and place the sheet on a
table, and then drop a needle, whose length is equal to the width of a row, from above, the
chance or probability that the needle intersects any of the lines is 2 divided by pi.
The most fascinating number is phi. Phi is an irrational number that approximates to
1.6180339887. It can also be expressed as the mathematical constant φ. Phi has many
pseudonyms throughout history. It has been known as the golden section, golden mean, golden
number, golden ratio, golden cut, the divine proportion and so on. Let us suppose AB is a
straight line and is cut at C unequally such that AC > BC and the ratio between AB and AC is
equal to that between AC and BC, then it is cut in extreme and mean ratio or golden ratio or phi.
Many natural phenomena exhibit a pattern that is characteristic of this ratio. The golden ratio is
being followed in art and architectural design. Examples may be cited. The ratio of two
dimensions (length 105 ½ inch x width 65 ¾ inch) of Salvador Dali’s famous painting
‘Sacrament of last Supper’ follows golden ratio phi.

A closer look at the petals of red roses reveals that one petal is not separated from the next one
completely, but partly covers the next one to an extent that is in the ratio of phi is to 1. The
magnificent spiral shells of mollusks and even the breeding of rabbits follow golden ratio.
Mollusks or seashells are of different varieties including clams and snails. One fascinating
variety is chambered nautilus whose shell is subdivided into as many as 30 chambers. As the
shell grows, its body moves forward into the new larger chamber and produces a wall to seal off
the older chambers. Nautilus shell grows larger on each spiral by phi. A cross-section of the shell
of the Nautilus will show the cycles of its growth as a series of chambers arranged in a precise
golden mean spiral. Guggenheim Museum of New York was constructed after the architectural
design of chambered nautilus. While maintaining silence, Lord Buddha used to give or show his
disciples as his blessings a flower to symbolize symmetry, harmony, love and fragility of life.
Lord Shiva holds a nautilus in one of his hands as a symbol of one of the instruments initiating
creation.

A number of budding life-forms show a phi pattern of their shape. Cut open an apple crosswise,
and in its center you will find seeds forming a perfect pentagram. The ratio of the longer side of
the five isosceles triangles to its shorter base is phi. Peel back the topmost leaves of a cabbage,
and you’ll find five leaves revealing pentagonal geometry. Cut the same cabbage crosswise, and
you’ll see a series of golden spirals contained within the growth pattern. If you draw a rectangle
with the longer and the shorter sides in the ratio of phi is to 1 and cut it in such a manner that you
make a square with sides equal to 1, the remaining rectangle is also in the ratio of phi is to 1. The
breeding of rabbits, honeybees and some other species in a colony follows the Fibonacci
numbers 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 and so on. In fact the series show the gradual growth of
population. If we take the ratio of two successive numbers or divide each by the number before
it, we will find the following series of numbers.
1
/1 = 1, 2/1 = 2, 3/2 = 1·5, 5/3 = 1·666..., 8/5 = 1·6, 13/8 = 1·625, 21/13 = 1·61538... The ratio
seems to be settling down to a particular value, which is exactly the golden ratio.