What makes a city or town aesthetically pleasing? Places such as Prague, Florence and Santorini are famous for their picturesque cityscape. Instead of specific famous buildings or tourist spots, postcards from these areas could just show any part of the city and they would still be beautiful. What sets these places apart? How is it that despite all our technological development, modern cities can’t compare to the beauty of cities that are hundreds or thousands of years old?
Korean architect Yoo Hyun-Joon proposes a theory regarding two factors: material and shape. Consider the following matrix using the two:
Out of these four, the combination that we find the most beautiful is when a city has simple materials but complex shape. For example, Santorini is made only of stone buildings painted white and blue. But because it is built on a volcano, the ground is uneven and the building shapes differ to accommodate for this. Florence is almost entirely made of bricks. Traditional Korean houses were made only of wood. This is because in the old days, due to labour costs and poor logistics, cities were usually built with materials abundant in the surrounding area. Instead of varying materials, architects would challenge the limit of materials with varied shapes.
Nowadays, thanks to trade and globalisation, it is much easier to obtain materials from all over the world such as glass, concrete and steel. Furthermore, we can use industrial vehicles to change the terrain to flatten the ground and we use tall rectangular buildings to maximise space. Thus, we end up with the ugly, chaotic combination of many materials and simple shape.
The solution to making a beautiful city is simple then – create a building restriction that unifies the building material to one. A good example is Newbury Street in Boston, USA. This shopping district is famous for its classy red brick appearance, thanks to a building restriction that ensures every new shop built on the street must have the side of the building facing the street built using red bricks.
Of course, just unifying the building material to any one thing does not solve the issue. For example, cities made of only concrete rarely are as appealing. What is important is to use local materials that best represent the context of the city and the land it was built on.
The belladonna flower has a name that means “beautiful lady” in Italian. However, its other common name has a completely different meaning – the deadly nightshade. Both names can be explained by the uses of the flower throughout history. The deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is a small shrub with purple bell-shaped flowers and shiny black berries. All parts of the plant contain various toxins such as atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine. These alkaloid toxins are included in a group of chemicals called anticholinergics, because they act on cholinergic receptors on neurons, which are involved in activating the parasympathetic nervous system. As cholinergic receptors are widely utilised throughout the body, anticholinergic toxicity causes a wide range of symptoms.
The main symptoms of anticholinergic toxicity are best remembered using the following mnemonic:
Hot as a hare (increased temperature – reduced temperature regulation)
Blind as a bat (blurred vision – dilated pupils)
Dry as a bone (dry skin, eyes and mouth – decreased secretions)
Red as a beet (flushing – dilation of blood vessels)
The name deadly nightshade is obvious as severe toxicity leads to seizures, coma and death. The reason why the deadly nightshade is also called belladonna is that the diluted extract from the plant was used as an eye drop to dilate women’s pupils – a look considered beautiful then (nowadays the effect is used to examine the eye). The toxins extracted are used in other fields of medicine too. Although not used now, anticholinergics were used as an anaesthetic for surgery due to its neuropsychiatric effects. However, atropine is still used in the emergency setting to reverse bradycardia (excessively slow heart rate), as anticholinergics speed up the heart rate. This highlights the fundamental principle of medicine that “the dose makes the poison”. For the only difference between medicine and poison is the dose… and intent (Oscar G. Hernandez, MD).
What is the most “beautiful” mathematical equation? For millenia, many mathematical formulas and concepts have been described as beautiful (and some defining beauty, as the golden ratio does). In the mathematical world, the adjective “beautiful” is used in the sense that certain mathematical concepts, despite the fact they are rational and objective, are so pure, simple and elegant that they can only be described as art.
One such formula is Euler’s identity:
Renowned physicist Richard Feynman described it as “the most remarkable formula in mathematics”. What makes this array of symbols and numbers so beautiful? Firstly, it contains the three basic arithmetic operations exactly once each: addition, multiplication and exponentiation. It also connects five fundamental mathematical constants with nothing other than themselves and the arithmetic operations.
0 is the additive identity, as adding it to another number results in the original number. 1 is the multiplicative identity for the same reason as 0. Pi(π) is one of the most important mathematical constants in the history of mathematics that is ubiquitous in Euclidean geometry and trigonometry. Euler’s number(e) is the base of natural logarithms and is used widely in mathematical and scientific analysis. i(√-1) is the imaginary unit of complex numbers, a field of imaginary numbers that are not “real”, allowing for the calculation of all roots of polynomials. Euler’s identity neatly sums up the relation between these five numbers that are so crucial in the field of mathematics. It is also interesting to note that these five numbers were discovered at different points in history spanning over 3000 years.
Some people describe mathematics as a distinct language in itself. Not only that, but mathematics is considered the universal language as it is both universal and ubiquitous. If that is the case, than Euler’s identity can be considered an extremely pithy literary masterpiece.
There have been recorded cases of people gazing upon a beautiful panorama of Florence or an exquisite painting and suddenly collapsing. The condition is known as Stendhal syndrome, alternatively called Florence syndrome or hyperkulturaemia (excess culture in blood). It has been described as causing tachycardia (rapid heartbeat), dizziness, confusion and fainting after being exposed to a particularly beautiful piece of art or scenery. It is named after French author Stendhal (penname of Henri-Marie Beyle), who upon visiting Florence in 1817 experienced the very condition.
Stendhal syndrome is most likely related to a very common phenomenon known as vasovagal syncope, where extreme emotions overwhelm the brain, induce a massive parasympathetic nervous response, causing the person to faint. There are two major nervous systems: the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight-or-flight response and essentially prepares the body for physical activity. The parasympathetic nervous system does the complete opposite and is activated when you are resting or digesting food. Thus, a burst of parasympathetic nervous activity causes a sudden fall in heart rate and blood pressure, causing the brain to lose the oxygen supply needed to maintain consciousness. When the person faints, they collapse and blood flow is restored to the brain. Vasovagal syncope can be caused by anything from standing up very quickly, extreme emotions (e.g. stress, seeing blood or needles) and fatigue. It is the most common cause of collapse and is (usually) completely harmless.
When a person looks at a breathtaking view or a stunning work of art, their brain is overwhelmed by intense emotions of excitement and joy. In the case of Stendhal syndrome, this effect is so great the person is literally blown away by the sight.
The people of Florence have noted that this phenomenon is rather common in tourists visiting the beautiful city.
The hardest object on the Earth is diamond. A diamond is famous not only for its hardness but also its luxuriousness and unique lustre. One might call it the king of all jewels. Would you believe then that such a beautiful, tough gemstone is made of the same thing as charcoal and graphite? Diamond is crystallised carbon where the carbon atoms are neatly arranged in a pyramid lattice. Charcoal and graphite are also made of carbon but the carbon atoms are placed in a different configuration, giving them a different look and characteristics. This unique lattice shape can only be achieved under extreme pressure (such as in the mantle of the Earth or in a meteorite). Thus, a diamond is just carbon that has endured stress well.
If diamond is the hardest material, then how can one cut it? The answer is simple – use a diamond. As it is near impossible to polish or cut without knowing this, diamonds were only used in the form of ores until the modern age. In 1919, a mathematician named Marcel Tolkowsky calculated the optimum proportions of a diamond cut to obtain the best lustre. The first time he struck the diamond with a nail, he fainted from the shock. He succeeded the second time and devised the round brilliant cut used most popularly nowadays.
Diamond is especially used in engagement rings. About 80% of all engagement rings sold in the United States are diamond rings. This may be because the toughness of diamond symbolises undying love, but another key reason is due to diamond syndicates and their marketing campaign. Even until the 1930’s, there was a tradition of women keeping their virginity until their engagement. Thus, if a man proposed to a woman, took her virginity and broke off the engagement, the woman had a legal right to sue the man. Diamond syndicate De Beers thought that this tradition was an excellent money-making scheme. They planted the idea that offering a diamond ring when proposing put a price on the woman’s virginity and encouraged men to buy more expensive rings to show their love and respect for the woman. This manipulative advertising campaign was a great success and the price of diamond skyrocketed very quickly. Now, a diamond ring is almost an essential item when proposing. Thanks to these companies, there are still many African children who are being slaved in diamond mines.
Among the many gods and goddesses in Greek mythology, there is a trio of goddesses who are personifications of beauty, elegance and grace – Aglaia (brightness and splendour), Thalia (festivity and plentiful) and Euphrosyne (joyfulness). They are daughters of Zeus and Eurynome the nymph and are famous for their pure, graceful looks and representing the beauty in life. Also known as the Charities, they are often depicted in artworks as dancing merrily in a circle or tending to Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sex, and her son Eros.
The Graces are known as young, virgin maidens who are often depicted as naked with clear, fair skin. They are beauty in the purest form with the absence of sexual lust (despite the nudity). Although they have no active role in mythologies, it is considered that their presence in any party or festival ensures people will have a joyous and fun time. Much like the Muses, the Three Graces are also connected to the arts, often shown with musical instruments. They are one of the most popular models in paintings and sculptures as they embody the concept of perfect beauty. This is why, like Aphrodite, they tend to be drawn with body proportions matching the Golden Ratio. Interestingly, they are almost always arranged to have two facing forwards with the middle one facing the other way.
(From top-left: Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera, Antonio Canova’s The Three Graces, Raphael’s The Three Graces, Greek sculpture of The Three Graces, Raphael’s Cupid and The Three Graces)
Helen of Troy is infamous for her pivotal role in the Trojan War after she left Sparta for her new lover, Paris of Troy. She was deemed the “most beautiful woman” in the world by Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who made her fall in love with Paris in return for him choosing Aphrodite as the most beautiful goddess.
Helen is said to have been so beautiful that she had “the face that launched a thousand ships” (in reference to the Trojan War and the massive navy of Greece). Using this statement, clever authors such as Isaac Asimov and W.A.H. Rushton invented the “Helen (H)” unit – an international, standardised measurement of beauty. As Helen launched a thousand ships, a milliHelen (mH) of beauty equates to the amount of beauty required to launch a single ship. For example, according to The Iliad, the total number of ships that joined the expedition to Troy was 1186. This means that Helen had a beauty rating of 1.186 Helens – ergo, capable of launching more than one thousand ships.
The unit also goes both ways as negative Helen units are possible. For example, -1 mH would mean “beauty” (read: ugliness) that drives a single ship away. The units can be subdivided further, such as a picoHelen (10^-12) being the amount of beauty that “tosses an inflatable tube into the pool”. Another interpretation of the Helen is the number of women that said woman is more beautiful than. For example, during Helen of Troy’s time (1100 BC), about 50 million women existed on Earth. Therefore, 1 Helen is amount of beauty sufficient to be greater than the beauty of 50 million women.
Finally, beauty is considered to be on a logarithmic scale of base 2. Simply put, for beauty to increase by 1H, the woman must be the most beautiful of double the number of women. In practical terms, the most beautiful woman who ever lived (using the cumulative female population of the world) has a beauty rating of 1.34H. The most beautiful of a dozen women would be 0.14H.
There once lived a Buddhist monk by the name of Great Master Wonhyo(원효대사) in the kingdom of Silla (during the Three Kingdoms period of Korea). At the age of 45, he set out to the country of Tang (modern day China) to further his understanding of Buddhism. During his travel, he decided to rest in front of a grave when night fell. In the middle of the night, he woke up feeling thirsty and searched for a drink. He found a bowl full of water in the complete darkness and drank it quickly to quench his thirst. He thought to himself “How lucky I am, to find a bowl of such sweet water.” and went back to sleep.
When morning came, he checked to see if there was still water in the bowl. He then realised that the bowl was actually a skull, and that the water was stagnant, putrid water that had collected in it. Realising that he drank the vile liquid from the skull, the monk started throwing up. But then, he realised that in the darkness, he drank from the skull with no problem, and even thought that the drink was sweet and refreshing. To quote:
Objects and rules are only born from the mind; a dead mind is no better than a skull. Buddha’s Three Commandments originate from the mind, everything is born from knowledge. What could I ask for more when I have a mind?
Thus, the Great Master Wonhyo understood the way of Ilche Yushimjo (일체유심조/一切唯心造/“The mind is the origin of everything” – the key principle of Hwaumgyung, an important Buddhist text). He turned back and returned to Silla, where he devoted his life to spreading Buddhism to the people.
Any sadness or frustration can be dissipated if you look back on it. Depending on how you see the world, it can be either beautiful or tragic.