Craven Lovelace

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September 27, 2012
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CRAVEN: Who doesn't love math?

Well, apparently quite a few people, that's who. And it's a shame, by Craven's reckoning, since there are many amazing tales to emerge from the weird and wonderful world of mathematics.

Take, for example, the strange and mysterious story of Pythagoras, the philosopher, cult leader and yes, mathematician, who may or may not have existed in Greece roughly 600 years before Christ. What little is known of Pythagoras' life - assuming there even was a real Pythagoras - comes to us from a handful of texts, which themselves were secondary sources often written hundreds of years after Pythagoras' death, and which are filled with credulity-stretching anecdotes about how Pythagoras' skin glowed, and how he had a golden thigh, and how he was sired by Apollo himself.

He was supposedly born on the Aegean island of Samos around 570 BC, and traveled throughout the Mediterranean area and into Egypt while in his 40s. Among the many accomplishments attributed to Pythagoras was the discovery that the celestial objects the Greeks knew as Hesperus and Phosphorus were actually both the planet Venus. He founded a school - really, more like a secret society - that existed for decades following his death and which contributed mightily to the fields of art and science.

But what Pythagoras is probably best remembered for are his major contributions to mathematics: His discovery of the so-called Pythagorean theorem, and his elucidation of the Golden Ratio. Whether your eyes glazed over in 7th grade geometry as you struggled to understand the relationship between the formula a2 + b2 = c2 and the hypotenuse of a right triangle, or you learned how to recognize the Golden Ratio in college art studies - or you never even heard of Pythagoras until this very moment - the ancient Greek's mathematical discoveries have impacted your life. Because not only are they fundamental to theories of art and science, but they also play an important part in music.

It was Pythagoras, they say, who discovered the connection between musical notes and whole numbers, a concept essential to understanding harmony and pitch. Pythagoras' Golden Ratio (also sometimes called the Golden Mean) can be discerned in the music of Beethoven, Brahms and Bartok (not to mention the art of Raphael, Michelangelo and da Vinci).

This is only appropriate for a philosopher who believed the cosmos comprised a giant lyre, and each planet was a string on that lyre, vibrating at specific pitches to create what Pythagoras called "the music of the spheres." For this legendary thinker, for whom the universe was perceived to be constructed out of mathematical magic nearly 3,000 years before "The Matrix," all of existence was a never-ending symphony of harmony and beauty - harmony and beauty which he understood could not exist without math.

Notes is supported by the Gay and Lesbian Fund, committed to building a better future for all of Colorado by supporting programs that keep kids in school.

Craven Lovelace produces Notes, a daily cultural history of popular music, for KAFM 88.1 Community Radio, kafmradio.org. You can visit cravenlovelace.com for more of his musings on the world of popular culture.


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The Post Independent Updated Sep 27, 2012 03:53PM Published Sep 27, 2012 03:52PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.