An Australian interviewer recently asked me, “of all the people throughout history, who would you like to spend time with?” Here’s my answer:
Leonardo da Vinci, born in the middle of the 15th century, was the founder of modern science and an interpreter between nature and humans.
He sought to understand the nature of life two centuries before the microscope was invented. He believed the earth was a living, self-organizing and self-regulating system.
Leonardo had exceptional powers of observation and a powerful visual memory. And his “sublime left hand” (as his friend and mathematician Luca Pacioli, called it) drew in excess of 100,000 drawings in more than 13,000 pages. Some 6,000 pages were preserved as manuscripts that are now in libraries and private collections. Others were preserved in larger forms known as codices, and are held by the British Royal family and Bill and Melinda Gates.
More than 100 years before either Galileo or Bacon, Leonardo developed a new empirical approach to science—systemic observations of nature, logical reasoning and some mathematical formulations, all the backbones of today’s scientific methods.
Leonardo’s uncanny ability to draw complex swirls of turbulent water and swift movements of birds was so accurate that nothing could match it until the advent of photography over three hundred years later.
He believed that in order to paint nature he must first understand it. Studying patterns in nature enabled him to transcend all boundaries.
His studies of muscles and bones lead him to invent gears and levers, interrelating physiology with engineering. His observations and recordings of turbulence in water led him to understand the flow of air, which in turn allowed him to explore sound, theory of music and the design of musical instruments.
His experiments in mathematics on continuous quantities came as a result of his incomparable drawings in nature. His science was inexorably linked to his art and vice versa.
The lists of his inventions—some 300—are phenomenal. They include small submarines for marine warfare, air bags, goggles and flippers for frogmen to bore holes in the planks of enemy ships, table lamps with variable intensities, opening and closing automatic doors using counter weights, folding furniture and a spit with variable speeds based on the intensity of the roasting fire.
As an architect he focused on design, which included villas, palaces and cathedrals, and he was often consulted as an expert on architectural problems.
In 1482 he witnessed the Bubonic Plague in Milan and quickly deduced the city’s appalling sanitation as the culprit. He submitted a proposal to rebuild the city with decent housing, shelters for animals and street to be regularly cleaned by flushing them with water.
He designed ideal cities to contain no more than 30,000 people with two levels – upper for pedestrians, lower for vehicles with stairs interconnecting them and underground canals to carry sewage away.
Leonardo worked on the human eye for more than 20 years and his research on optics, anatomy and neuroscience ranks amongst his finest achievements.
His renowned inventions of flying machines were truly amazing and all based upon thousands of hours of observing the birds on the hills outside Florence. Recently, his glider model was built and tested off the cliffs of southeastern England, and its engineers noted that it superseded the first attempts of the Wright Brothers in 1900.
His belief that all inventions came from nature’s blueprint occurred 500 years before the applied engineering field of biomimetics was created.
His love of nature and passion for all life stands as a beacon for all that is good in humankind, and I can’t help but think that even the master Renaissance designer, engineer and scientist knew so: “Read me, O reader, if in my words you find delight, for rarely in the world will one such as I be born again.”
Earth Dr. Reese Halter is a broadcaster, biologist and author of “The Incomparable Honeybee.”