An enthusiastic mixture of history, neuroscience and pop psychology that aims to explain the brilliance of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).
In this study of the great polymath, surgeon and best-selling author Shlain (Sex, Time, and Power: How Women’s Sexuality Shaped Evolution, 2003), who died in 2009, stresses that his subject’s painting skills quickly made him famous, although he also earned a living as a sculptor, architect and military engineer. Obsessively curious, da Vinci’s thoughts on science, engineering, inventions, anatomy and art take up 13,000 pages of prose, plans and drawings. According to Shlain, da Vinci anticipated Newton’s laws, Descartes’ analytic geometry, Darwin’s view of species and Rayleigh’s explanation of why the sky is blue. His fascination with the human body produced celebrated anatomical illustrations, including the first accurate descriptions of structures in the heart, eye and brain. Shlain has no doubt that he invented the submarine, parachute, helicopter, bicycle, ball bearing, canal lock, metal screw and innumerable other labor-saving machines that anticipated the Industrial Revolution. Sadly, almost all these achievements were confined to his journals, which were not published during his lifetime. The mind of such an extraordinary man must also be extraordinary, Shlain writes, and he proceeds to deliver a fine overview of brain function and the psychology of creativity—although his belief that the brain has a rational side (the left) and a spiritual side (the right) is considered a vast oversimplification by scientists who are also skeptical of extrasensory perception, which the author feels explains many of Leonardo’s amazing insights.
Shlain admits that he is taking an extreme position, but many readers will forgive him because he has written an entertaining mixture of facts and speculation on one of history’s immortals.