Enter the maze

Beauty beyond measure

a human face in profile, made from fractals

Did you ever think a number could be beautiful? How does 3.1416 grab you? Is 6.238673 hot? What about 1.61803399, does it catch your eye? Strange as it may seem the number 1.61803399 is responsible for some of the most beautiful things in the world around us. It’s called the Golden Ratio and it has been used for centuries in art and architecture. So what’s so special about this number, what is its link to beauty and why might it lead to a moral dilemma?

The Ratio all around

Take a range of different sized rectangles and ask people to say which looks the best proportioned, where the width and height look just right and easy on the eye. They will tend to pick the rectangle where the length and width are in the golden ratio. That is, if you divide the length by the width the answer is close to 1.61803399. That's why credit cards are the shape they are. Leonardo Da Vinci and other Renaissance painters used the golden ratio to structure their pictures. For example, the proportions in the Mona Lisa are related to this ‘beautiful’ number. The Parthenon in Greece also has the Golden Ratio built into its shape. In nature sunflowers, pinecones and other exquisite natural structures exhibit the golden ratio. Many have argued this is because the Golden Ratio arises from using something called a Fibonacci sequence, and a Fibonacci sequence is one of the best ways to pack things tightly together: beautiful and efficient. Of course beauty, or aesthetics, are often in the eye of the beholder and not all scientists are convinced about the ‘beautiful’ properties of the Golden Ratio.

The perfect face?

American plastic surgeon Dr Stephen Marquardt has studied human beauty for years. He believes that he has discovered a fundamental rule for facial beauty. Whatever the race, period of history or gender, beautiful faces exhibit the Golden Ratio in their shape. He has developed a ‘beauty mask’: a grid of lines in the form of a face where the line’s geometry is determined using the Golden Ratio. By overlaying this grid on a face and seeing how well an individual’s features match up to the ‘perfect’ Golden Ratio face, you can ‘calculate’ how beautiful a person is. Dr Marquardt has suggested the mask could be used to help with creating cosmetic makeup, surgery and dentistry for people who have suffered facial disfigurement.

Beautiful idea or not?

There have even been attempts to automate the measurement of how a face matches up to the mask, and so give a numerical ‘score’ for a person’s beauty. Developed for use on a camera phone it’s not available in the shops just yet. Would you be interested in using it? Perhaps you think that having people use such an application would be a really bad idea. After all, reducing a person to a single number kind of throws away lots of the other things that make us people. This only looks at geometry, and there is surely more to beauty than that.

How would it be used? Could it cause people to be bullied? Is the science behind it correct? Computer scientists need to think about these sorts of issues. Ethics, whether something is right or wrong, is an important part of a computer scientist’s training. After all they have the power to create new applications, but what applications should they create? Are there applications that would be wrong to work on? With great power comes great responsibility.

Try the beauty mask for yourself if you like by clicking on the link below, but remember there is much, much more to being a ‘beautiful’ person than a beautiful face.