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The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance Paperback – December 2, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Capra, author of the classic The Tao of Physics, makes the case in this fascinating intellectual biography for the great artist Leonardo being the unsung father of modern science. Drawing on approximately 6,000 pages and 100,000 drawings surviving from Leonardo's scattered notebooks, Capra explores the groundbreaking research of this quintessential Renaissance man. Illegitimate, born in a Tuscan village in 1452, Leonardo did not receive a classical education, a fact that, Capra notes, later freed him from the intellectual conventions of his time and allowed him to develop his own holistic, empirical approach to science. Apprenticed with Verrocchio in Florence around the age of 15, Leonardo became an independent artist when he was 25, but his intellectual appetites demanded more. He taught himself Latin and began the famous notebooks, a record of his artistic and scientific explorations. The recurring patterns he saw in nature led him to create what Capra calls a science of wholeness, of movement and transformation. Capra expresses his own intellectual kinship with Leonardo's multidisciplinary perspective on science, one that recognizes the fundamental interdependence of all natural phenomena—a view he sees as particularly relevant today. Illus. (Oct. 30)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“Minutely researched, vividly written, and endlessly fascinating, The Science of Leonardo opens up a realm which has never been adequately appreciated.” —Dr. Oliver Sacks“Illuminating and impassioned . . . . A profound and clear exploration of Leonardo's scientific thought.”—The San Francisco Chronicle“A delight . . . . Lucid and spirited, it sparks a whole series of ideas and questions for further investigation.”—American Scientist“A fascinating glimpse of the road not taken by Western Science. Capra makes a compelling case that the science of the future may look a lot more like Leonardo's than Bacon's or Descartes -- a science of systems, non-reductive and akin to an art.” —Michael Pollan, author of Botany of Desire and Omnivore's Dilemma“Vivid and compelling. . . . Leonardo himself would have nodded in approval of this book, because for the first time it crystallizes the entire body of his work into a coherent, unified whole.” —Michio Kaku, author of Physics of the Impossible
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For a book about a man whose greatest talent was his ability to draw, it is woefully under-illustrated. Few pages from his voluminous notebooks are reproduced, and when they are, the pages are unannotated. This is absurd: the text is mirror-written Italian and illegible anyway in the reduced-size reproductions, and without it the drawings are mysterious in many cases.
The text is full of unsupported claims about Leonardo's discoveries; the few that are examined in sufficient detail don't really jibe with Capra's summaries. For example, Capra represents Leonardo as having discovered that light is a wave; the detailed text shows that he had in fact made the remarkably astute assertion that sound is a wave phenomenon, but did not grasp the importance of frequency or wavelength in determining perceived pitch. Capra gives no example of Leonardo exhibiting the essential properties of waves -- phase, wavelength, interference -- in discussions of light. Leonardo worked with geometric optics, which doesn't require that the underlying phenomenon be wavelike.
Similarly, he is described as having discovered the reason the sky is blue, but a more careful examination of Leonardo's remarks shows that he got only half the problem right: he correctly understood that the particles of "moisture" (actually the individual atoms) in the air are scattering incoming solar radiation, but since he didn't understand the impact of frequency on color, he could not and did not grasp that this scattering was wavelength-dependent (the 'blue' part).
The book has some gems, for Leonardo was of course a remarkable man, but all too often we have Capra reading into Leonardo's work 20th century science that either isn't there or is not demonstrated to be there. Someone will have to write a better book so that we can more fully and correctly appreciate the great man's work.
Just for completeness, I hold advanced degrees in applied physics, and have written some technical books, so my expectations for content may be a bit different from most readers!
The world was used to see Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) as a painter, not a scientist. I questioned this view already at the start of my genius research, about thirty years ago, when I found out about Leonardo’s scientific notebooks. Leonardo and Goethe were the avatars of a new culture, a new society, and yet, at their lifetimes, their breadth of mind and holistic worldview was hardly valued, let alone understood. Goethe had a stable income as a government-employed jurist, Leonardo was doing work for kings and queens, and made a living with construing weapons, but both had their minds focused on what essentially constitutes life, and Leonardo, just as later Albert Einstein, was a genial scientist before he was a great artist. Before the 20th century, both scientists were barely understood. Goethe’s color theory was looked at with suspicion, as it was in flagrant contradiction to Newton’s scientific universe.
Leonardo was considered by Herman Grimm, a noted historian, in side remarks of his monograph Life of Michelangelo, as a flamboyant regal person, but also a bohemian and ‘dark soul.’ However, Grimm’s picture of Leonardo lacks personal touch; it is deeply romantic and seems almost sterile. Grimm did not depict, and even less appreciate, the personal identity of the genius but rather painted him as a genus. Needless to add that in his romantic effluvia, Grimm did not lose a world on the scientist Leonardo, and this is all too typical for the general opinion about him before the 20th century.
Now, with the study of his scientific genius by Fritjof Capra, Leonardo can eventually be noted by science history as one of the greatest scientific innovators the world has ever seen. He notes in his elucidating study on Leonardo, The Science of Leonardo (2007/2008), that the great polymath of the Renaissance was contrary to common belief not a mechanistic thinker, as were later, for example, Francis Bacon or Galileo Galilei, despite the fact that he was one of the first great inventors of modern machines, and very interested in machines all his life through. But he did not, as later Cartesian science and philosophers such as La Mettrie or Baron d’Holbach, consider the human body as a machine.
Capra makes his point convincingly that modern science did not begin with Galilei, but with Leonardo, because it was Leonardo who, for the first time in human history, has applied the scientific method, logic, observation and the capacity to conceptualize a multitude of single data into a single coherent and consistent theory. This was so much the more an achievement as during his lifetime science was still entangled with religion to a point that a large body of the corpus scientia was ecclesiastical doctrine, and as such a mix of mythic views, politically correct assumptions and a residue of observation that was for the largest part taken over from Aristotle.
It is highly curious to observe that Leonardo did not formulate, at the onset of his lifelong multidisciplinary research, an intention for so doing; calling himself humbly ‘uomo senza lettere’, an uneducated man, his project was to write a manual on the ‘science of painting.’ His grasp of the world was predominantly visual, and so was his scientific method; it was primarily based upon very accurate and very astute observation of nature and all forms of living. Only a genius can have the abundant curiosity, the intellectual grasp and the persistence to inquire so deeply and so thoroughly from what the eye perceives, to really get to unveil basic laws and functional connections in all living, and in all material life.
One may be baffled to see that this magnificent creator was to that point marginalized during his lifetime that none of his notebooks were ever published, worse, as Capra reports, after his death, the collection of his writings and drawings, almost thirteen thousand pages, was scattered and dispersed all over Europe, and stuffed in libraries, instead of having been sorted and properly published; still worse, almost half of the collection was lost.
I would like to focus for a moment on one single and in my view significant detail, namely how Leonardo was thinking about ‘life’, about living systems, and about science in relation to life. We are today familiar with the conception of life being not a linear rigid structure that is totally measurable, except when organisms have died, but a nonlinear structure of dynamic patterns, which are essentially relationships. As we have seen, Fritjof Capra has elucidated in his study The Web of Life (1997) that life is basically a structure of ‘networks within networks’ and that hierarchies do exist in nature only in the sense that smaller networks are contained in larger networks but not in the sense of a rigid up-down hierarchy as traditional human society, especially under patriarchy, has conceptualized it as the reigning sociopolitical model.
This view is emerging since a few decades and is called the ‘systems view of life’; it is related to deep ecology and Gaia theory and was developed, besides Capra, mainly by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Humberto Maturana, Francisco J. Varela, Ilya Prigogine and Ervin Laszlo.
What was known from Goethe’s pantheistic philosophy that considered life as an organic whole, we find it, in Capra’s retrospective, equally with Leonardo.
Capra goes as far as talking of Leonardo as ‘a systemic thinker’, because of his strong synthetic thinking ability, that was able to ‘interconnect observations and ideas from different disciplines.’ /5
He observes that Leonardo’s visual perception was unusually sharp and accurate, and truly scientific in scope and intent, and that he also had an accurate sense of motion which is seldom to find. Usually, the static eye distorts objects that are in motion. We are hardly aware of this imperfection of our sight as we today are surrounded by visual objects such as televisions, and take high-quality photographs using digital technology. But at a time when there were no photographic plates and cameras, motion was hardly ever depicted by visual artists in a realistic sense; this was simply so as most artists were unable to train their eye to a point to perceive motion correctly, and without distortion of perspective.
In addition, Capra notes, Leonardo had a view of the body that preceded quantum physics and modern spirituality. For Leonardo, ‘the human body was an outward and visible expression of the soul; it was shaped by its spirit.’ /5
Fritjof Capra notes that Leonardo had an understanding of nature that was basically ecological in the sense that, contrary to what Francis Bacon would advocate a century later, man was not made for dominating nature, but for understanding nature, and based upon that understanding, to cooperate with nature. From this basic worldview, Leonardo was sensible to nature’s complexity and abundance, which was certainly not an attitude commonly to be found at his lifetime. In addition, he was aware of the fallacy of scientific reductionism.
I will end my review here for this book is so particular and detailed that I would need to paraphrase too much of Capra’s good and competent narration. This book and his last book so far, which I shall review below, are very great achievements of the writer and scientific thinker Fritjof Capra. His excellent Italian, and his special knowledge even of ancient Italian understandably was extremely helpful to him in perusing—or rather deciphering—Leonardo’s shorthand writing style.