Book of the week

28th January 2000 at 00:00
LEONARDO: The First Scientist. By Michael White. Little, Brown pound;20

He was an artist and inventorwhose outsider status enabledhim to become a modern scientist. Ted Dewan on the true legacy of Leonardo's genuis

New Year's Day is well behind us now, so please excuse me if I draw a parallel between the Y2K computer bug and the teachings of Aristotle.

Consider this: in 1964, IBM decided to stick with a two-digit date-field computer hardware standard. Thereafter, the world's computer systems and software (electronic "thinking", if you like) were doomed to freeze at the end of the 20th century. Voices of dissent were quashed by the big boys in the computer industry. The cost was the $500 billion spent in a last-minute effort to prevent a digital calamity (which, so far, seems to have worked).

Now consider this: in 350 BC, Aristotle unwittingly begat a cult of unchallenged obedience to his quaint and erroneous teachings. Voices of dissent were quashed by the big boys in the church. The Aristotelian thought standard turned out to be the far more damaging and costly "bug", freezing European scientific thought in the year 350 BC for almost two millennia.

To whom can we give credit for beating this bug? Michael White's book re-examines one early voice of dissent, that of Leonardo da Vinci. An illegitimate homosexual living in 15th-century Europe, Leonardo was doomed to be an outsider. He dismissed most of humanity as mere "fillers of latrines", however his fierce individuality provided him with a certain immunity against the "A2K" bug. But was Tuscany's favourite illegitimate son a real scientist? Galileo is generally considered to be "the father of the modern scientific method", but White throws Galileo's paternity into question.

Leonardo's artistic endeavours were usually intertwined with his scientific achievements. Notes and preliminary sketches for major art commissions shared page space with diagrams of inventions to help realise the piece. Studying optics combined his interests in painting, geometry, physics, and vision, and led him to a search for the seat of the soul. These experiments were followed by musings on the wave nature of light - centuries before the technical language of wave studies was coined.

While Leonardo knocked about from city to city, he had to change his allegiances to enjoy continuous patronage, often by touting his abilities as a military engineer and inventor. His situation brings to mind the sort of double-life led today by many scientists who, despite their personal morals, often find themselves depending on weapons research funding to carry on with the workthey are passionate about.

In his previous book, Isaac Newton: the last sorcerer, Michael White focused on Newton's alchemical and theological work, showing him to be a man with one foot in the medieval world and the other in the scientific era. The First Scientist makes an excellent case for Leonardo's era-straddling in similar fashion. These two books are marvellously complementary, and together they place Leonardo and Newton as intellectual bookends on either side of the two centuries that witnessed the birth and maturation of European scientific thought.

By focusing on the motivational aspects of science, White successfully expands the definition of the term "scientist". He maintains that Leonardo's self-confessed lack of mathematical ability should not exclude him from the scientific roster. Leonardo chose to express his ideas and observations in drawings and notes; in later centuries, Michael Faraday and Richard Feynman would use drawings in a similar fashion, as both scientists found higher-order mathematics cumbersome.

Michael White analyses one particular passage in Leonardo's optics notes, and pulls out the book's most convincing smoking gun - Leonardo's method of inquiry was broadly the same as the scientific method used today. This example finally convinced me that Leonardo need no longer linger in the proto-scientist bin.

His spirit is present in White's careful scholarship and independence of mind. Leonardo is quoted in the book: "he who can go to the fountain does not go to the jar". There is greater fidelity in observing from life than copying the artwork and using the work of others. The author clearly took Leonardo's advice to heart by making heavy use of his surviving manuscripts rather than relying primarily on previous interpretations.

White chooses to downplay his former career as a pop musician with the Thompson Twins, but the diversity of his talents might have given him a personal insight into the polymath nature of his childhood hero's genius. Remarkably, he does so without going over the top, and even takes time to deflate some of the existing hyperbolic folklore Leonardo inspires. His careful analysis and engaging writing style might just change readers' perception of science and other creative pursuits. And even the most skeptical readers will find themselves making room in the esteemed roster of "real" scientists for one Leonardo da Vinci.

Mainly known as a creator of children's picture books and music, Ted Dewan is also a collaborator on several popular science books and a former physics teacher. You can visit his website on

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