I have just picked up my copy of Quirkology by Richard Wiseman; It’s a book full of odd scientific ideas and experiments mostly in the realm of social science specifically the quirky side of human nature. In the introduction to the book Wiseman discusses a Victorian scientist called Sir Francis Galton who was one of the earliest known scientists to focus their studies in this area. Though he is better known as the father of Eugenics (think inherited traits), and advanced the field of statistics, he was also full of imaginative ideas and bizarre approaches, which is why I find him so interesting. His investigations included the level of boredom of his colleagues’ lectures, the effectiveness of prayer and the method of making the perfect cup of tea (achieved when ‘the water in the pot had remained between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit, and had stood eight minutes on the leaves,’ apparently).
The particular piece of Galton’s science I am going to look into today is his ‘Beauty Map’ of Britain, which in a way is related to his interest in eugenics as he believed beauty was inherited genetically. To create his ‘Beauty Map’ Galton traipsed through the major cities of Britain with his trusty punch counter rating the attractiveness of all the people he passed (I imagine it rather like that lynx advert a few years back where they had a little hand held clicker to count the number of times they were flirted with. Find it on youtube here). For your information, London was considered the best looking and Aberdeen the worst.
I lived in Aberdeen for the last 2 years and certainly wouldn’t say the people there are particularly unattractive, though I am horribly oblivious. Also bear in mind the time the investigation was undertaken, back in the 1800’s Aberdeen was essentially a dock, it’s industry was mostly fishing, ship building an a dash of railway building. I imagine these sort of trades took a toll on the people. It’s quite different up there now.
So now I have excused Aberdeen I will query the validity of the experiment to begin with. From what I can tell, Galton always aimed to investigate his ideas subjectively and with hard data. For example, he measured levels of boredom by using fidgeting as an indicator. By quantifying the amount of fidgeting in each of his colleagues lectures he could, at least qualitatively state which lectures were more or less boring. And here again his experiment is subjective rather than objective, as implied by the saying ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’; we all find different people attractive. Add to this the fact that upbringing, media sway, culture and history all affect how attractive we find someone and I would have to say Galton’s experiment simply shows where the people he found most attractive lived.
Every now and then I see on Facebook a comparison of different countries opinions on beauty. Sometimes in the form of who do they consider most beautiful, and sometimes in the form of Photoshop the same person to make them beautiful to you. Whichever is used both illustrate that beauty does not have a standard, there is not a single ideal to measure against, and it will change over time. Just consider what the top models looked like over the last several, decades. The trend has changed a lot.
Although I’ve just belaboured the point that beauty is open to interpretation, there are some mathematical ideas on beauty. The golden ratio that guides many proportions has a strong influence on the perception of beauty, as does symmetry. When facial features are at the right ratios, and fall symmetrically often we find someone visually pleasing, or at the very least inoffensive. And yet if you remove all distinctive features, fit too closely to the perfect mathematical ideal then you become forgettable, non-distinct. I came across a youtube video that averaged Hollywood beauties to, what was most noticeable about the experiment was that the final result, though undoubtable beautiful was nowhere near as attractive as the originals (youtube link here). It is our differences, unique features and eccentricities that make us attractive, just think about that famous beauty spot.
A bonus feature for you, if you find the mathematical concept of beauty interesting, is this link to pichacks.com that will let you make your face symmetrical. Provide it with a head on picture, and it will show you two symmetrical faces, one based on each side of your face (make sure the picture you provide is very straight otherwise you will look very odd). Highly useful for determining your best side for all those Christmas pictures that are bound to crop up.