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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2003-03-21)

The last two articles in this series raised some topics that need revisiting.

No 39 talked about people whose names have become part of the language. We call such words “eponyms”. The article had hardly been aired when a little book on the subject came my way, rather endearingly entitled Batty, Bloomers and Boycott and written by one Rosie Boycott. (Her relationship to the original Charles Boycott, if any, is not explained.)

Charles Boycott, an Englishman, was a farmer and land agent in Ireland who incurred the wrath of tenants when two bad potato harvests in 1879 and 1880 led them to demand a rent reduction. He felt this to be unjustified. His attitude was seen to be an oppression of the poor and he was deliberately ostracised by the entire community. It went a little further than mere ostracism; his crops were stolen, his cattle were driven off and he was fired on three times, so he seems to have deserved his eponymous immortality.

Coincidentally, the name cropped up again in a book I have been reading – Keep on Dancing by Sarah Churchill, Winston Churchill’s third child. She recalls an occasion when her brother Randolph appeared on that famous American quiz show, The $64 000 Dollar Question. His subject was General Knowledge, and he read industriously for months to prepare himself. For his first question he was required to give the origin of the word “boycott”. He couldn’t. Aghast and humiliated, he was eliminated in Round One. His sister rang him the next day and said consolingly, “Well, there have been some doubts about the authenticity of the programme, but you’ve certainly dispelled them!”

In my last column I mentioned the Golden Ratio or Section, the relationship of 1: 1.618. A rectangle with a long side of 1.618 units and a short side of 1 unit is in some way pleasing to the eye. To quote Time-Life’s book Mathematics: [It] is said to be one of the most visually satisfying of all geometric forms…In recent years the validity of its link to beauty has been widely debated.

The Golden Rectangle occurs in art more often than can be accounted for by mere coincidence.” One significant example is the front of the Acropolis which, with its missing pediment sketched in, fits almost exactly into a “Golden Rectangle”. It is worth noting that it was built in the 5th Century BC, by men who probably had no conscious knowledge of the Golden Ratio.

But there is another very odd connection here. It concerns a mediaeval Italian mathematician called Leonardo “Fibonacci” da Pisa, who lived from 1170 to1230. He wrote down a sequence of numbers, called the Fibonacci series, in which each term is the sum of the previous two: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 and so on. What makes these numbers significant is that patterns in natural objects often conform to ratios between two adjacent Fibonacci numbers.

According to Time-Life’s Mathematics again, the bumps on pineapples are arranged in opposing spirals with a relationship of 8: 13, and the scales on pine-cones are similarly arranged with a ratio of 5: 8. More interestingly still, the ratio between any two Fibonacci numbers after 3 is about 1:6, pretty much equal to the Golden Ratio that started this train of thought in the first place.

That’s the trouble with numbers: they acquire a life of their own. We’re probably safer with words.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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