The mathematics of beauty

Sebastian Smee of the Boston Globe penned a very interesting profile this weekend on one Horace Brock, an imposing man with five degrees under his belt including classical music, mathematics and economics.

Brock claims to have discovered a formula for beauty. From the article:

    What about this theory, then?

    In truth, it’s satisfyingly simple. Designed objects, Brock writes, can be broken down into “themes” and “transformations.” A theme is a motif, such as an S-curve; a transformation might see that curve appear elsewhere in the design, but stretched, rotated 90 degrees, mirrored, or otherwise reworked . . .

    Brock wants to be clear that his theory applies only to beauty in design – in other words, architecture, furniture, and other kinds of decorative art: “That’s very important – I wouldn’t want to claim too much.” But in his catalog essay he claims his account “makes it possible to clarify, and indeed to quantify, one of the deepest principles of aesthetics: People . . . tend to be bored if there is too much simplicity (the kitchen chair, certain Gregorian chants) and overwhelmed if there is too much complexity (pastiche Victorian furniture, much 20th-century classical music).”

    In his estimation, the theory also subsumes most previous theories of beauty in design – from Pythagoras’s golden rectangle to Hogarth’s “line of beauty,” from the celebrated golden section to the Fibonacci series – into a neat mathematical equation.

Smee probes a little and questions whether beauty can be reduced so simplistically to an equation. Brock is absolute in his response to the idea that beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder, “It’s absolute crap.”

A man after my own heart. Read the article in its entirety here.

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About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

4 Responses to The mathematics of beauty

  1. Tim J. says:

    I would really hesitate about calling anything a “formula for beauty”… maybe a formula that is beautiful, or a formula that expresses one aspect of beauty, but not a real explanation of beauty.

    It sounds interesting, though. Of course, the comprehension of beauty might be subjective, but beauty itself must subsist in some kind of objective reality, or there could be nothing to “comprehend”.

    It is all fine to talk about how everything is beautiful, until you see something really ugly, like an oral cancer.

    • pNielsen says:

      It’s a great read, the article in its entirety, which is why I didn’t elaborate. I hope for readers to actually invest the time in this particular piece of writing (which isn’t always the case on the blog). The writer does a decent job qualifying Brock’s statements.

      What I’m agreeing to is mainly Brock’s reaction to the idea that beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder, which is a load of crap. While I also have reservations about formulas for beauty, I’m not remotely qualified to question Brock’s statement that mathematics are grossly under appreciated.

      I don’t exactly follow your last sentence. I don’t remember anything in the article suggesting everything is beautiful . . .

  2. Tim J. says:

    “I don’t remember anything in the article suggesting everything is beautiful . . .”

    Oh, no… I didn’t mean to suggest it was a response to anything put forth in the article (which I plan to read, but haven’t yet). This was offered only as an example of what you get when “beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder” is taken seriously.

  3. Grace Lloyd says:

    I remember watching something about this in my math class in highschool. It was so interesting and i think there is actually some truth behind this theory. Even though it would make beauty seem so much less elegant and enchanting if it could be reduced to an equation.

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