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LEONARDO by Michael White


The First Scientist

By Michael White

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-312-20333-0
Publisher: St. Martin's

Science writer White (Isaac Newton, 1997, etc.) makes a vigorous though not always convincing case that the scientific endeavors of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) were as important as his paintings.

The quintessential “Renaissance man,” Leonardo was in many ways out of step with that era of learning and discovery. Vegetarian, pacifist, bastard, and homosexual, he was deeply misanthropic—especially following an accusation and trial on sodomy charges. Unfortunately for him, science (the field that most excited his restless intellect) held out the least prospect for success and the most for danger. Not only was he handicapped by technology too undeveloped to allow him to put his concepts into practice, but his era was deeply skeptical of scientific inquiry. Damned as a heretic and necromancer for dissecting bodies, Leonardo was forced to give up the practice by Pope Julius. Paranoia about having his ideas stolen also led him to write his notebook observations in left-handed mirror writing (and even in code) to camouflage them. That factor, plus the dispersal of his notebooks after his death, meant that it would take others more than 200 years to rediscover what Leonardo had originally gleaned about optics, mechanics, anatomy, and geology. Leonardo’s inability to tell the world about his work makes his position similar to that of the Vikings as discovers of America and somewhat undercuts White’s claims for him. But aside from the hyped title, White is careful not to claim too much for Leonardo, noting the lack of mathematical skills that meant so much to modern scientists. He adeptly explains how the artist anticipated the inventions of plastic, contact lenses, steam power, and the CAT scan by centuries. Best of all, White shows how Leonardo “cross-fertilized ideas from different disciplines”—using optics, for instance, to enhance his use of shadow, contrast, and perspective.

Though its central claim may be pushed further than the evidence would allow, this artfully wrought biography gives a true appreciation for “the sprawling mind of this inveterate intellectual magpie.”