Learning from Leonardo


Learning from LeonardoDecoding the Notebooks of a Genius, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2013

Learning from Leonardo is a fascinating read and unveils much of Leonardo’s unique personality, and especially the nature of his scientific and human genius. It seems conceptually be the second volume of Capra’s earlier book on Leonard’s science. I have a feel that these two books about Leonardo could in the future be considered as the most important works of Fritjof Capra, and they are certainly his highest achievements given the difficult nature of the subject, and the difficulties with translating and perusing an immense amount of data, which to this day will and remains inaccessible to most humans on the globe. One probably needs to be a genius oneself to really penetrate into the universe of Leonardo.

The genius of Leonardo is so unique because it was so versatile. It cannot be compared with anything we know today, in a culture where specialization is required and where universal genius would be frowned upon as ‘generalizing and imprecise.’ Perhaps Leonardo had most in common with Aristotle, in that both men were general and precise at the same time, which is not achievable for most humans simply because of the sheer amount of data to process, ideas to develop, concepts to make, and hidden connections between seemingly separate subjects to make out and describe. I am well aware that in stating this, I made a comparison that limps as Aristotle was certainly not a great artist, nor did he excel in inventing and conceptualizing machines of any kind. It is then the unique combination, the unique synthesis of art, science and technology that makes the genius of Leonardo.

The main message of this book is that we, as a society, need to expand our understanding of the multi-faceted problems with an interdisciplinary perspective, rather than staying with the narrow focus of ‘specialization’ that modern science emphasizes so much. If we could see, as Leonardo did, the unity of all life, and recognize the fundamental interdependence of all natural phenomena, we would begin to design effective solutions to problems that we always thought were unsolvable. The author’s intention was thus to outline the synthesis in thinking that Leonardo achieved 500 years ago. When you consider this enormous and enormously important claim, you cannot but think this must be a tremendously timely book.

What our science achieved only recently, over the last 30 years or so, within the framework of systems theory, was for Leonardo a natural and organic way of thinking, for at the core of Leonardo’s synthesis was the understanding of living forms of nature. His conception of painting was scientific, too, in that it involved for him the study of natural forms in very minute detail, in a way that to my knowledge no other artist has every undertaken. In this sense, the artist Leonardo and the scientist Leonardo cannot be separated: one part of his personality complemented the other. It is therefore important to understand both is art and his science, and then, as the author did in this book, arrive at a synthesis.

What only now emerges in modern science, namely an appreciation of the form and gestalt of matter, rather than its substance, Leonardo was lucidly aware of. He studied throughout his life the magic of water, its movements and flow nature and was by so doing a pioneer in the discipline known today as fluid dynamics. His manuscripts are filled with precise drawings of spiraling vortices. His studies seem to not have been appreciated by previous commenters, which makes Capra’s contribution a very original one, as he delivers an in-depth analysis of Leonardo’s ‘water science’, and he based his analysis on extensive discussions with Ugo Piomelli, professor of fluid dynamics at Queen’s University in Canada.

As Leonardo observed how water and rocks interact, he undertook ground-breaking studies in geology, even to the point that he identified folds of rock strata and outlining and evolutionary perspective 300 years before Charles Darwin.

In addition, Leonardo made extensive inquiries about plants. While this research was first intended as studies for paintings, it became so extensive that they resulted in genuine studies about the patterns of metabolism and growth that underlie all botanical forms. Other domains of study were mechanics, known today as statics, dynamics, and kinematics, thereby inventing a great number of machines. He also compared the way humans move their body and animals, by comparison, and what fascinated him most in this field of inquiry was the flight of birds. He became almost obsessed with flying, and thus designed highly original flying machines. But his science of flight, as Capra shows with his habitual systematic approach, involved numerous sub-disciplines such as aerodynamics, human and bird anatomy, and mechanical engineering.

Capra’s has great merit in identifying what he calls the ‘grand unifying theme’ in Leonardo’s explorations of both the macrocosm and the microcosm, in order to gain an understanding of the nature of life. Capra reports that this quest reached its climax in the anatomical studies he carried out in Milan and Rome when he was over sixty, especially in his investigations of the human heart. Nobody had at that time an idea how the heart functions.

Finally as Leonardo approached old age, he became fascinated with the processes of reproduction and embryonic development. In his embryological, he described the life processes of the fetus in the womb in great detail.

I do not dare to utter any even slight critique of this enormous work by Fritjof Capra, and perhaps we should wait until the scientific world will eventually open their minds to this immensely enriching knowledge, until a real review of this book can be written. Until then, my little overview here may serve as a guideline—and it’s certainly not intended to be more than that, for I am not myself a scientist and as the book is so extravagantly detailed, I can’t figure how to really review it.

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