Looking Good

By David Von Drehle
Sunday, November 12, 2006

I spotted her across a crowded room , 15 or maybe 20 years ago. She stood as if frozen in grace and time, poised in a shaft of light that seemed calculated to flatter her lustrous skin and full, moist lips. She had a regal air and great serenity, even as people circled her and stared frankly, women as well as men. Her beauty stunned me like a mallet to the head.

I slowly made my way toward her. I felt a strong desire to reach out and touch her slender neck, just below the ear, but of course I didn't. I hadn't even learned her name. Also, she was sealed inside a clear display case. And she didn't have an ear -- or nose, eyes or hair for that matter. Just her neck and the lower half of her face.

The vision that struck me so powerfully that day was a fragment of a once-complete bust of an Egyptian queen, possibly Nefertiti. This masterpiece of highly polished jasper is more than 3,300 years old and resides in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. When I caught my first heart-stopping glimpse of her, she firmly settled in my mind the question of whether physical beauty is real or simply a creation of society and the media. Her lean neck, high cheekbones, smooth skin and bee-stung lips transcended the miles and millennia between her reign and that of Angelina Jolie or Tyra Banks.

Stephen Marquardt, a reconstructive surgeon in Southern California who has made a career of studying beauty, would say that my response was hard-wired. Marquardt is one of a number of doctors and scientists probing the machinery that connects perceptions of beauty with human evolution. Beauty, they theorize, is the name we give to certain signals processed instinctively by our animal brains. It isn't invented by Hollywood or fashion magazines so much as it is programmed into our DNA.

For example, a number of studies have shown that faces judged to be beautiful, regardless of culture, are highly symmetrical. Nature seems to have a bias in favor of balanced pairs -- two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, two wings. Two recent studies found that greater symmetry in men corresponds with more and faster-swimming sperm.

A Polish researcher named Grazyna Jasienska recently designed an experiment to determine whether symmetrical women have higher levels of the key reproductive hormone estradiol. In the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, her team reports the results. They compared the left and right ring fingers of 183 Polish women between the ages of 24 and 36. Women whose fingers differed in length by more than two millimeters formed the asymmetrical group. Their average estradiol levels were 13 percent lower than the symmetrical group average.

When the scientists screened out rural women, whose economic status and harder lives could skew their hormone levels, the difference in average hormone levels between symmetrical and asymmetrical urban women rose to 28 percent.

Marquardt's work has an artistic spin to it. Like Euclid, Leonardo da Vinci and Le Corbusier before him, the doctor became fascinated with the possibility that beauty itself could be quantified. His instincts told him that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. "I didn't find that to be true," he explains in an interview. "Guys seem to agree. They may argue over whether they prefer Michelle Pfeiffer or Kim Basinger, but you never hear anyone say Roseanne Barr." He had always been mathematically inclined, so, beginning in the early 1970s, Marquardt set out to compile the measurements of beautiful faces. He focused on people who were paid for being attractive -- movie stars and face models. His colleagues scoffed: "Every doctor I talked to told me I was nuts," he recalls.

At the same time, Marquardt was reading everything he could find on earlier searches for the elusive key to beauty. Between his reading and his measurements, he began to home in on a simple mathematical formula known as the Golden Mean, or Golden Section.

The Golden Mean is a ratio that appears to connect (in some uncanny way) with all sorts of sensually pleasing creations, man-made and organic. Many readers today are familiar with the idea from Dan Brown's blockbuster The Da Vinci Code , but Marquardt had developed his theory long before the book was written. The Golden Mean and the related mathematical sequence known as Fibonacci numbers lie behind such elegant shapes as the spiral seashell of the chambered nautilus and the five-pointed star on the American flag. The same principle also predicts such phenomena as the perfect arrangement of petals on a flower to maximize the surface area exposed to the sun.

Picture the ratio in its simplest form: two lines. The first line is an inch long, and the second approximately 1.618 inches. (The exact length of the second line is called phi, and like its more famous cousin pi, it goes on endlessly after the decimal point.) The ratio of these two lines, 1 to 1.618, is the Golden Mean.

What's so golden about it? Well, suppose you joined the two lines -- call them section one and section two. Their combined length, section three, is 1.618 times longer than the second section by itself. Which, you'll recall, is 1.618 times longer than the first section. Now combine section three with section two, and sure enough -- the combination is 1.618 times longer than section three by itself.

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