Saturday, September 18, 2010

Leonardo da Vinci: The Audubon of Automata

I was asked to review Leonardo's Legacy: How Da Vinci Reinvented the World by Stefan Klein for the New York Journal of Books. My copy from the publisher (Da Capo, April 27, 2010) arrived very late and I only found time to complete my review last week. As a consequence, NYJB ended up inserting it retroactively into their April slot and they either dropped or did not know how to accommodate the timeline I created for my review. So, I'm including it here.
It is intended to give some perspective on the extraordinarily early period in which Leonardo lived relative to other well-known contributors to the development of western scientific thought.

Other themes covered in my review include:
  • Dissecting cadavers
  • Backward writing
  • Stroboscopic vision
  • The opportunist
  • Optics
  • Electric water
  • Innumeracy
  • Computing engines
  • Simulations
  • The grounded aeronaut
This is not the Leonardo you might have learnt about in school.


  1. Interesting chart .. would be currios about possible x-influences of these brilliant minds ..
    Kemal A. Delic - March 17, 2011

  2. Thanks for your question and I would highly recommend that you read the book, perhaps using my review as a guide (I've now corrected the broken URL). A few things to be aware of, that I learnt from the book.

    Leonardo "borrowed" ideas liberally from others, as did most of his contemporaries. His distinction seems to have come from his ability to render ideas as visions on paper. He was trained as an artist and thus Leonardo often drew what he saw, not what was there. For this reason a lot of his anatomy and physics is flat-out wrong.

    On top of that, Leonardo was innumerate, in part due to his lack of formal education. As I remark in my review: "The incredibly detailed map of Imola comes with no legend or scale markings, yet we knew that he measured distances accurately with his cyclometer." He seems to have used counting merely as a means of determining artistic proportions.

    As a consequence, Leonardo's ideas were mostly impressionistic and unsystematized. But all that was about to change c.1550 with the advent of very accurate astronomical measurements by Brahe.

    To answer your question, you can think of an historical dividing line at 1550. To the left was Leonardo and his contemporaries among whom there was an undocumented exchange of ideas. To the right of that line, however, is a step-function transition in our approach to understanding the world, based on the interplay of measurement, mathematics, and abstractions, all grounded in numbers. The critical mass for this transition was being developed by others during Leonardo's time but, being uneducated, he was divorced from it. That, it seems to me, is why Leonardo was decoupled from the development of modern scientific thought.

  3. A self-portrait of the young Leonardo da Vinci, which was lost for 500 years, has been restored using simple techniques and free software. See
    Physics arXiv blog for details.