Self portrait

By coincidence, I have read biographical works over the past several months about Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo Da Vinci. In all three cases, the authors emphasized that these men were motivated by insatiable curiosities to question established “knowledge” and see beneath and beyond it.

The most recent of these books is “Leonardo’s Legacy” by European science writer Stefan Klein.

Although, Dan Brown aside, the mention of Leonardo may evoke in most people’s minds images of paintings and sculptures, Klein covers the broad range of Leonardo’s interests, from human anatomy to hydrodynamics.

Statue of Leonardo, Uffizi, Florence

Klein doesn’t neglect the arts. In fact, I found his discussion of the Mona Lisa enlightening. I am a duffer when it comes to art, and I have never thought seriously about that painting – which appears in so many contexts that it has become a cliche. But Klein’s explanation, for instance, of Leonardo’s use of chiaroscuro to create a lifelike image helped me to look at the portrait with a new perspective. The same is true of the author’s explanation of the painter’s use of light and of the landscape that appears in the background.

Klein also pointed out that Leonardo, who had made careful studies of the muscles and nerves that control facial expressions, created the woman in the “Mona Lisa” with an asymmetrical face in which the emotions expressed on each side are not identical. Here, Leonardo seemed to be anticipating what is now understood about the left and right hemispheres of the brain controlling the right and left sides of the body, respectively. It was one of many examples of how Leonardo applied what he learned in one field to his work in another.

Portrait by Swedish artist Evald Hansen

Leonardo associated with some interesting Renaissance characters, including the  philosopher Nicolo Machiavelli and the warlord Cesare Borgia. Leonardo hired himself out to men like Borgia in order to make a living, and he  earned his keep by providing entertainment and by designing practical devices, including weapons. Klein makes a point of the apparent contradiction between Leonardo’s abhorrence of war and avowed respect for life and his willingness to imagine and at least design on paper the most horrible mechanisms for maiming and killing human beings.

On the other hand, Leonardo’s employment by Borgia was the occasion for creating an astounding map of the Central Italian city of Imola. By Klein’s reckoning, Leonardo and an assistant paced off very street and building in the city, using instruments that Leonardo had invented for that purpose. Leonardo then prepared a realistic view of Imola that appeared as if it were viewed from overhead – an unheard-of concept at that time.

Flying machine design

Among Leonardo’s fixations was the behavior of water, and he spent incalculable hours pursuing it – simply by observing water in nature and also by sketching it alone and including it in his paintings. He studied surface tension and the manner in which water moved through wider and narrower channels. He put to use the knowledge he gained when he designed a lock for a canal in Milan and, in a more remote way, when he studied the manner in which blood flows through the vessels of the body. Klein suggests  that Leonardo may have actually built a model of a heart to reach his conclusions about the movement of blood in the cardiac ventricles –  something that wasn’t scientifically observed until hundreds of years later.

Anatomical drawings

Leonardo was also determined to provide man with the freedom of flight, but Klein explains that this enterprise was doomed to failure because of Leonardo’s incorrect assumption that birds could fly because they flapped their wings. Although Leonardo understood the concept of gliding, he did not deduce that birds kept themselves afloat because of the difference in the speed and pressure of air passing above and below their wings. Given the era in which he was working, however, Leonardo’s conceptual achievements in this area are still remarkable. In fact, Klein describes an experiment in which modern hobbyists built a machine based on one of Leonardo’s designs, but provided it with a rigid wing, and the device was able to fly.

A great deal of Leonardo’s insight – literally and figuratively – came from his work in dissecting cadavers, something that he found repugnant but pursued for the sake of knowledge. Study of anatomy was not unusual among artists at that time, but Leonardo’s desire to understand the component parts of any organism – natural or artificial – took his studies far beyond those of his contemporaries. His study of the body of a centenarian with whom he had been acquainted led him to the conclusion that the man had died because hardened and constricted vessels had retarded the flow of blood, a finding that foreshadowed diagnoses of arteriosclerosis. So thorough were Leonardo’s examinations of the human body that Klein says some of the artist’s anatomical drawings could have been made in the 21st century.

The author  argues that Leonardo’s expansive work was possible because the manner in which he lived gave him a great deal of  freedom to observe and ponder and sketch and tinker. Klein speculates that minds like Leonardo’s still exist but wonders if they can thrive under our highly structured educational systems.

In any event, this very readable book challenges us all by reminding us of the capacity of the human mind, even ours.

Leonardo's "overhead" map of Imola. The roof of each individual house was painted in water colors.

The Statue of Liberty in a needle's eye

The Statue of Liberty in a needle's eye

The BBC World News broadcast this morning included a report on Willard Wigan, a British sculptor whose works are so small that they can be seen only through a microscope.

Wigan traced this vocation to the fact that he is dyslexic. When he was a child, he said, dyslexia was not well understood, and he was accordingly treated as a cipher. He retreated into a fantasy world in which he built minature houses and other articles for use by the ants he found on the grounds outside his home.

It was one thing to hear the BBC radio reporter describing Wigan’s work; it was another thing to see photos of his creations for myself. They put me to mind of what I have recently read about the sizes of some circuits now in use and the prospects for such devices to become even smaller.

What are we more fascinated with, I wonder, the very large or the very small? In nature, the answer may be the very large; the Blue Whale still leaves us breathless. But where the man-made is concerned, my money is on the very small. The debacle at Babel aside — I think we are all convinced that man can build as large as he cares to, and so we aren’t so impressed when he outdoes himself. The Sears Tower? The Empire State Building? Yeah, yeah. Where should we have lunch?

Match head and boxing match

Match head and boxing match

The compelling thing about small, is that our imaginations don’t contain smallness as easily as they contain bigness. We could visualize a building tall enough to reach the moon — even if it’s a physical impossibility — but we can’t visualize things so small that we cannot see them. There is nothing in our everyday experience to give us a frame of reference — those of us who aren’t physicists or bacteriologists, that is.

At any rate, you can read all about Mr. Wigan and see more of his work at this link:

http://www.willard-wigan.com/default.aspx

Girl on an eyelash

Girl on an eyelash