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Leonardo: The First Scientist Hardcover – August 17, 2000
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"This story deals almost exclusively with Leonardo the man and Leonardo the scientist," admits British science writer Michael White, who touches only lightly on da Vinci's more famous achievements as a painter. Providing an extensive analysis of Leonardo's notebooks, White argues persuasively that da Vinci (1752-1519) made important discoveries in the fields of optics and anatomy, particularly the anatomy of the eye, and "worked methodically and with scientific precision centuries ahead of his time in the areas of geology and geography." Only the notebooks' dispersal in pieces across Europe after Leonardo's death, White believes, kept him from being properly acknowledged as "the first scientist." Informative though these sections are, it's the author's multilayered portrait of da Vinci the man that really fascinates. He was intensely social and charming, gaining the friendship and patronage of many of the great Renaissance princes while enjoying the companionship of beautiful boys. Yet Leonardo could also be distrustful and defensive, frequently expressing a jaundiced view of human nature that may have originated in the stigma of his illegitimate birth and a frightening court trial on charges of sodomy when he was 23. Without indulging in overly reductive psychologizing, White suggests that da Vinci's "almost psychotic need to discover, to unravel the mystery of life" had its roots in personal experiences that taught Leonardo to be wary of his fellow man and to seek his deepest fulfillment in the life of the mind. --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
It's not easy writing a biography of a legendary figure like Leonardo da Vinci, one whose life has already been well chronicled by numerous others. White (Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science, etc.) takes on this task to demonstrate that, in addition to his artistic mastery and engineering acumen, Leonardo boasted scientific advances and insights that qualify him as the first scientist. Born more than 100 years before Francis BaconAwho for his work in defining the scientific method is generally credited with this designationALeonardo wrote about experimentation in a surprisingly modern manner. He focused his attention primarily on optics, human anatomy, flight, geography and geology, making significant advances in each field. "Quite simply, if Leonardo had chosen to concentrate upon only one of the areas of research he tackled and had even then come up with the results he did, he would still be remembered today for his genius and imagination," writes White. Sadly, virtually none of Leonardo's scientific work was published during his life and much was lost over the ensuing generations. In his scientific endeavors, as with most of his other areas of interest, Leonardo was a very private person and one who seemed unable to fully finish tasks. Although there's not much new material here, White does an amiable job of presenting Leonardo and his times in a fresh manner. 35 b&w photos. (Aug.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
White's contention, in concentrating on Leonardo's investigations, is that he was in fact acting as a scientist, perhaps the first modern one: using direct experiment to test theories that he was formulating. While Leonardo was certainly doing this, it all depends on how you define science. If it is experimentation to validate and change your mathematical theories, OK. But if you mean participating in a community that shares a larger theoretical foundation and then communicating your results for a kind of peer review, which Kepler and Galileo did, Leonardo most definitely was not a modern scientist: he kept his notebooks to himself and feared plagarism almost paranoically.
Unfortuantely, White leaves the definition unclear and so turns his book into a strange kind of anacronistic exercise. If you focus on the work on others, you can argue that many were "the first modern scientists." Some hundreds of years before Leonardo, the builders of gothic cathedrals appear to have had geometric concepts (math), which they carved into massive stone by trail and error (experiment), and they also had an overarching highly logical intellectual system, scholasticism, that was adaptive and very rich. Why not argue that they were the first real scientists?
Moreover, it is not even clear that White wants to systematically argue that Leonardo was "first," but merely that he was a pioneer. Does it even make sense to argue such a thing? What does it really add? We all know he was a genius who was largely self-educated and hence did not share the aristotelian assumptions inherent in scholasticism. But Leonardo was not systematic: with the exception of his great anatomical studies, he jotted thing down most things privately and in code, so you really have to interpret a lot of things heavily to find meaning in them.
Nonetheless, this was the first bio I read of Leonardo and it was quite interesting. Indeed, it gave me an appetite to seek more on him, though I would go for his art and engineering in the next go. It covers many of the standard details adequately and is written clearly, even beautifully. When the author speculates, which I think he does far too often, he at least makes it clear that that is what he is doing.
Recommended as a starting point.
Michael White gives a broad picture of the artist, and how he broke new ground, both within art, and also is his investigations. Da Vinci also managed to bridge science and art. He was able to see science from the perspective of an artist, to visualise art with the mindset of a scientist, and capture architecture from the viewpoint of the artist-scientist.
White postulates that da Vinci was the first scientist. However, we have to remember that the 21st century of a `scientist' is very different to that in 15th century Florence, or Milan. There was still the scope for individuals to engage in an all-embracing approach, so the body of knowledge was sufficiently small as to be able to be grasped. Furthermore, this was so for about 250 years after da Vinci's time.
Da Vinci was a very talented man, and it is tempting to question what he might have achieved if he had been more focussed. He tended to flit from one thing to another, leaving many incomplete projects, and ever two or three books-in-the-writing, not finished, or indeed, hardly started. White does bring out the breadth of the tasks that the Italian tackled, correctly giving emphasis to some achievements not generally known.
However, whereever you look, there is the enigma that is da Vinci. He is a peculiar mix of old and new, showing in his studies of eyes that he was far ahead of his time. Da Vinci goes some of the way towards the notion of blood circulating, but not quite making the impossible leap that William Harvey was to make over 200 years later. What White does is show that da Vinci was one of the first to systematically investigate, to move from the cognitive to the experimental scientist.
Da Vinci left a huge collection of notes, drawings and "scribblings", and these were firstly lost for over 200 years, and then dissipated into private collections and archives. It is always possible to show tenuous links with hindsight. Maybe there is some over eagerness on White's part, but da Vinci was a marvellous man.
Geology, rain, water and clouds, anatomy, fortifications and machinery of war, canals, and the list goes on. He was forward looking, and many have claimed that da Vinci invented helicopters, and other diverse items of machinery. Yet he was steeped in the Aristotelian view of the four elements; earth, air, fire and water. He also did not spend large amounts of time investigating cosmology, as many of his age did.
Da Vinci had feet of clay, yet a very freethinking mind. He used science to aid him, to help him as an artist. His only published work, a book on art gives views ahead of his time, on distance, perspective, light and shade. That in itself would have made the man worthy of praise. He also continued to study, to both aid his art, and for scientific discovery. The fact that he was a bridge between the old and the new is another facet of the enigma that is Leonardo.
Peter Morgan, Bath, UK (firstname.lastname@example.org)