Famous for his paintings — the Last Supper and the Mona Lisa — Leonardo da Vinci was also a brilliant scientist and thinker who lived 500 years ago.
He contemplated geology, physics, aeronautics, hydrodynamics, meteorology, and physiology hundreds of years before such disciplines were imagined. His designs included a helicopter, submarine, and a telescope — centuries before anyone else thought of them.
“He invented the future,” says Bulent Atalay, co-author of a new book about Da Vinci. “Unfortunately, he didn’t publish, so he wasn’t influencing the future,” Atalay told me in an interview in my office (watch the series of videos below).
“If he had published and his notes had gotten into the right hands, other gifted scientists within his own time, we could have been at this juncture two hundred years ago.
“Late in the 18th Century, I think, we would have had this level of technology [that we have today] and this level of science, if indeed he had published.”
Watch a four-part video interview with Bulent Atalay about his book:
Bulent Atalay, a scientist and artist who wrote “Math and the Mona Lisa: The Art and Science of Leonardo da Vinci” (published in 12 languages), and Keith Wamsley, a classicist and historian, illuminate the many facets of Da Vinci’s legacy in “Leonardo’s Universe: The Renaissance World of Leonardo da Vinci” (National Geographic Books, January 2009, $35).
Atalay is something of a scientist-artist himself. His biography states that he is a theoretical physicist and a professor at the University of Mary Washington – where he has taught for four decades. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. His academic training includes degrees and postdoctoral training at Georgetown University, Princeton University, the University of California-Berkeley, and Oxford University. He has held one-man art exhibitions in London and Washington and is a frequent lecturer on Leonardo.
Keith Wamsley teaches history and Latin at a private secondary school in Virginia and was a contributing editor on “Math and the Mona Lisa” (Smithsonian Books, 2004). He is trained in classics and literature in undergraduate and graduate work at Cornell University, Brown University and the University of Mary Washington.
I spent a delightful hour with Atalay, my own private lecture about the extraordinary genius of Leonardo da Vinci. He described the 20 or so Nobel Prize winners that he had met as “ordinary geniuses.” Leonardo, to him, is the genius of the geniuses, one of the “transformative geniuses” — people who don’t follow the normal topography of logic “but who seem to go from mountaintop to mountaintop,” he said.
Atalay ranks Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo as the greatest artists of all time. Yet Leonardo produced only about a dozen paintings. “And it turns out that the No. 1 and No. 2 most famous paintings are by him. No one will argue that the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper are the most famous,” Atalay told me.
What makes this book different to other books about Leonardo? “It’s the balance of the science and the art,” Atalay says. The art is better known, obviously, but Da Vinci’s notes about science didn’t get into the hands of scientists until the late 19th Century, and even then no one really looked at them, he said.
“But as a scientist, as I look at those notes I see what the art historians haven’t seen,” Atalay said.
There is more to this book than Leonardo the artist and scientist. Much of the book is devoted to the Renaissance, the extraordinary awakening in Europe that provided the context for a truly extraordinary individual who imagined the future centuries ahead.