The Golden Ratio

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The Golden Ratio
Fields: Algebra and Geometry
Image Created By: azavez1, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Website: The Math Forum

The Golden Ratio

The golden number, often denoted by lowercase Greek letter "phi", is {\varphi}=\frac{1 + \sqrt{5}}{2} = 1.61803399.... The term golden ratio refers to the ratio \varphi : 1. The image to the right is a warped representation of dividing and subdividing a rectangle into the golden ratio. The result is fractal-like. This page explores real world applications for the golden ratio, common misconceptions about the golden ratio, and multiple derivations of the golden number.


Basic Description

The golden number, approximately 1.618, is called golden because many geometric figures involving this ratio are often said to possess special beauty. Be that true or not, the ratio has many beautiful and surprising mathematical properties. The Greeks were aware of the golden ratio, but did not consider it particularly significant with respect to aesthetics. It was not called the "divine" proportion until the 15th century, and was not called "golden" ratio until the 18th century. Since then, it has been claimed that the golden ratio is the most aesthetically pleasing ratio, and claimed that this ratio has appeared in architecture and art throughout history. Among the most common such claims are that the Parthenon and Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa uses the golden ratio. Even more esoteric claims propose that the golden ratio can be found in the human facial structure, the behavior of the stock market, and the Great Pyramids. However, such claims have been criticized in scholarly journals (see references at the end of the page) as wishful thinking or sloppy mathematical analysis. Additionally, there is no solid evidence that supports the claim that the golden rectangle is the most aesthetically pleasing rectangle.

Misconceptions about the Golden Ratio

In his paper, Misconceptions about the Golden Ratio, George Markowsky investigates many claims about the golden ratio appearing in man-made objects and in nature. Specifically, he claims that the golden ratio does not appear in the Parthenon or the Great Pyramids, two of the more common beliefs. He also disputes the belief that the human body exhibits the golden ratio. To read more, click here!

What do you think?


A Geometric Representation

The Golden Ratio in a Line Segment


The golden number can be defined using a line segment divided into two sections, of lengths a and b, respectively. If a and b are appropriately chosen, the ratio of a to b is the same as the ratio of a + b to a and both ratios are equal to \varphi. The line segment above (left) exhibits the golden proportion. The line segments above (right) are also examples of the golden ratio. In each case,

\frac{{\color{Red}\mathrm{red}}+\color{Blue}\mathrm{blue}}{{\color{Blue}\mathrm{blue}} }= \frac{{\color{Blue}\mathrm{blue}} }{{\color{Red}\mathrm{red}} }= \varphi .

The golden rectangle is made up of line segments exhibiting the golden proportion. Remarkably, when a square is cut off of the golden rectangle, the remaining rectangle also exhibits the golden proportions. This continuing pattern is visible in the golden rectangle above.


The golden number \varphi is used to construct the golden triangle, an isoceles triangle that has legs of length \varphi \times r and base length of 1 \times r where r can be any constant. It is above and to the left. Similarly, the golden gnomon has base \varphi \times r and legs of length 1 \times r. It is shown above and to the right. These triangles can be used to form regular pentagons (pictured above) and pentagrams.

The pentgram below, generated by the golden triangle and the golden gnomon, has many side lengths proportioned in the golden ratio.

\frac{{\color{SkyBlue}\mathrm{blue}} }{{\color{Red}\mathrm{red}} } = \frac{{\color{Red}\mathrm{red}} }{{\color{Green}\mathrm{green}} } = \frac{{\color{Green}\mathrm{green}} }{{\color{Magenta}\mathrm{pink}} } = \varphi .

These triangles can be used to form fractals and are one of the only ways to tile a plane using pentagonal symmetry. Two fractal examples are shown below.

A More Mathematical Explanation

Note: understanding of this explanation requires: *Algebra, Geometry

Mathematical Representations of the Golden Ratio

An Algebraic Representation

We may algebraically solve for the ratio ( \varphi ) by observing that ratio satisfies the following property by definition:

\frac{b}{a} = \frac{a+b}{b} = \varphi

Let  r denote the ratio :



r=\frac{a+b}{a}=1+\frac{b}{a} =1+\cfrac{1}{a/b}=1+\frac{1}{r}.

Multiplying both sides by r, we get


which can be written as:

r^2 - r - 1 = 0 .

Applying the quadratic formula , we get r = \frac{1 \pm \sqrt{5}} {2}.

Because the ratio has to be a positive value,

r=\frac{1 + \sqrt{5}}{2} = 1.61803399... =\varphi.

Continued Fraction Representation and Fibonacci Sequences

The golden ratio can also be written as what is called a continued fraction by using recursion.

We have already solved for  \varphi using the following equation:


We can add one to both sides of the equation to get


Factoring this gives

 \varphi(\varphi-1)=1 .

Dividing by \varphi gives us

\varphi -1= \cfrac{1}{\varphi }.

Adding 1 to both sides gives

\varphi =1+ \cfrac{1}{\varphi }.

Substitute in the entire right side of the equation for  \varphi in the bottom of the fraction.

\varphi = 1 + \cfrac{1}{1 + \cfrac{1}{\varphi } }

Substituting in again,

\varphi = 1 + \cfrac{1}{1 + \cfrac{1}{1 + \cfrac{1}{\varphi}}}

\varphi = 1 + \cfrac{1}{1 + \cfrac{1}{1 + \cfrac{1}{\cdots}}}

This last infinite form is a continued fraction

If we evaluate truncations of the continued fraction by evaluating only part of the continued fraction (the finite displays above it), replacing \varphi by 1, we produce the ratios between consecutive terms in the Fibonacci sequence.

\varphi \approx 1 + \cfrac{1}{1} = 2

\varphi \approx 1 + \cfrac{1}{1+\cfrac{1}{1}} = 3/2

\varphi \approx 1 + \cfrac{1}{1 + \cfrac{1}{1 + \cfrac{1}{1} } } = 5/3

\varphi \approx 1 + \cfrac{1}{1 + \cfrac{1}{1 + \cfrac{1}{1+\cfrac{1}{1}}}} = 1 + \cfrac{1}{1 + \cfrac{1}{1 + \cfrac{1}{2}}} =1 + \cfrac{1}{1 + \cfrac{2}{3}} = 8/5

Thus we discover that the golden ratio is approximated in the Fibonacci sequence.


1/1 = 1
2/1 = 2
3/2 = 1.5
8/5 = 1.6
13/8 = 1.625
21/13 = 1.61538462...
34/21 = 1.61904762...
55/34 = 1.61764706...
89/55 = 1.61818182...

\varphi = 1.61803399...\,

As you go farther along in the Fibonacci sequence, the ratio between the consecutive terms approaches the golden ratio. Many real world applications of the golden ratio are related to the Fibonacci sequence. For more real-world applications of the golden ratio click here!

In fact, we can prove this relationship using mathematical Induction.

Since we have already shown that

 \varphi = 1 + \cfrac{1}{1 + \cfrac{1}{1 + \cfrac{1}{\cdots}}} ,

we only need to show that each of the terms in the continued fraction is the ratio of Fibonacci numbers as shown above.

First, let  x_1=1,  x_2=1+\frac{1}{1}=1+\frac{1}{x_1} ,  x_3= 1+\frac{1}{1+\frac{1}{1}}=1+\frac{1}{x_2} and so on so that  x_n=1+\frac{1}{x_{n-1}} .

These are just the same truncated terms as listed above. Let's also denote the terms of the Fibonacci sequence as  f_n=f_{n-1}+f_{n-2} where f_1=1,f_2=1, and so f_3=1+1=2,  f_4=1+2=3 and so on.

We want to show that  x_n=\frac{f_{n+1}}{f_n} for all n.

First, we establish our base case. We see that  x_1=1=\frac{1}{1}=\frac{f_2}{f_1} , and so the relationship holds for the base case.

Now we assume that  x_k=\frac{f_{k+1}}{f_{k}} for some  1 \leq k < n (This step is the inductive hypothesis). We will show that this implies that  x_{k+1}=\frac{f_{(k+1)+1}}{f_{k+1}}=\frac{f_{k+2}}{f_{k+1}} .

By our definition of x_n, we have

 x_{k+1}=1+\frac{1}{x_k} .

By our inductive hypothesis, this is equivalent to


Now we only need to complete some simple algebra to see



Noting the definition of f_n=f_{n-1}+f_{n-2}, we see that we have


Since that was what we wanted to show, we see that the terms in our continued fraction are represented by ratios of Fibonacci numbers.

The exact continued fraction is  x_{\infty} = \lim_{n\rightarrow \infty}\frac{f_{n+1}}{f_n} =\varphi .

Proof of the Golden Ratio's Irrationality

Remarkably, the Golden Ratio is irrational, despite the fact that we just proved that is approximated by a ratio of Fibonacci numbers. We will use the method of contradiction to prove that the golden ratio is irrational.

Suppose \varphi is rational. Then it can be written as fraction in lowest terms  \varphi = b/a, where a and b are integers.

Our goal is to find a different fraction that is equal to  \varphi and is in lower terms. This will be our contradiction that will show that  \varphi is irrational.

First note that the definition of  \varphi = \frac{b}{a}=\frac{a+b}{b} implies that  b > a since clearly  b+a>b and the two fractions must be equal.

Now, since we know


we see that  b^2=a(a+b) by cross multiplication. Writing this all the way out gives us  b^2=a^2+ab .

Rearranging this gives us  b^2-ab=a^2 , which is the same as  b(b-a)=a^2 .

Dividing both sides of the equation by  (b-a) and  a gives us that

 \frac{b}{a}=\frac{a}{b-a} .

Since  \varphi=\frac{b}{a} , we can see that  \varphi=\frac{a}{b-a} .

Since we have assumed that a and b are integers, we know that b-a must also be an integer. Furthermore, since  a<b , we know that  \frac{a}{b-a} must be in lower terms than  \frac{b}{a} .

Since we have found a fraction of integers that is equal to  \varphi , but is in lower terms than  \frac{b}{a} , we have a contradiction:  \frac{b}{a} cannot be a fraction of integers in lowest terms. Therefore  \varphi cannot be expressed as a fraction of integers and is irrational.

For More Information

  • Markowsky. “Misconceptions about the Golden Ratio.” College Mathematics Journal. Vol 23, No 1 (1992). pp 2-19.

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  1. "Parthenon", Retrieved on 16 May 2012.

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