Da Vinci, Polymaths and the Art-Science of Innovating the Future

Da Vinci Sketch

Redesigning art, science and mankind.

Leonardo Da Vinci had an impressive CV: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. The period in which he flourished, now known as “The Renaissance” (“The Rebirth”), was a time of extraordinary experimentation. Inspired by the intellectual curiosity of their ancient Greek and Roman forebears, Renaissance thinkers combined art and science in novel ways; the boundaries between the disciplines more fluid than they are today. It was from such voluminous expertise that the ideal of The Renaissance Man arose: an individual with many creative gifts who cultivated a wide range of scholarly interests.

This period of history is analogous to our own, as we enter an increasingly technology era,  the border between man and machine gradually disappearing.

The Divine Proportion

Da Vinci’s iconic Vitruvian Man (1490)  has become an everlasting symbol of The Renaissance, of its dual commitment to artful wonder and scientific rigour. In Vitruvian Man’s creation, Da Vinci synthesized information from anatomy, architecture and physics into, what he believed, was an overarching theory of the universe.

 The Encyclopaedia Britannica described it as,

“Leonardo envisaged the great picture chart of the human body he had produced through his anatomical drawings and Vitruvian Man as a ‘cosmografia del minor mondo’ (cosmography of the microcosm). He believed the workings of the human body to be an analogy for the workings of the universe.”

 

Vitruvian Man (1490)

Da Vinci was exacting in his approach to aesthetics. He illustrated a book on mathematical proportion in art, De divina proportione (1509).

He  also kept detailed notebooks in which he methodically recorded his observations of the natural world. From his notebook:

“The lights which may illuminate opaque bodies are of 4 kinds. These are: diffused light as that of the atmosphere… And Direct, as that of the sun… The third is Reflected light; and there is a 4th which is that which passes through [translucent] bodies, as linen or paper or the like.”

Da Vinci applied this knowledge to art-making. His groundbreaking painting, The Lady with an Ermine (1483) contrasted varying degrees of light and shade to create depth of perspective in a way rarely achieved before.

His use of light in later works such as The Mona Lisa (1503-17) forever changed how artists used light in their paintings.

Left: Mona Lisa  (1503-17) Right: Lady with an Ermine (1483)

 

He also turned his meticulous hand to cartography, creating maps that were visually detailed and precise, which was unusual for the time. In 1502, his plan of the Italian town of Imola in Bologna was unparalleled in this regard.

Town Plan of Imola                                       Town Plan of Imola (1502)

Varying Octaves

It was this ability to successfully blend art and science that made Da Vinci the innovator he was.

A true man of The Renaissance, his tune was not monotonous. He played a range of chords during his lifetime, producing novel harmonies and unique melodies.

In the early 21st century, such types were harder to find. In 2009, Edward Carr writing for the magazine Intelligent Life argued that polymaths are “an endangered species”.  This was due in large part to universities worldwide favouring specialisation in one particular area, with generalists regarded as lacking commitment or insufficient depth of knowledge to really be considered an authority in their field.

But what about the blow this deals to innovation, Carr wonders?

“The question is whether their loss has affected the course of human thought. Polymaths possess something that monomaths do not. Time and again, innovations come from a fresh eye or from another discipline. Most scientists devote their careers to solving the everyday problems in their specialism. Everyone knows what they are and it takes ingenuity and perseverance to crack them. But breakthroughs—the sort of idea that opens up whole sets of new problems—often come from other fields. The work in the early 20th century that showed how nerves work and, later, how DNA is structured originally came from a marriage of physics and biology.”

Indeed, Francis Crick, one of the two men credited with uncovering the double helix structure of DNA, had begun his career in science as a physicist. By applying methods he had learned from physics, he was able to approach what was considered the “holy grail of biology” in a new and effective way. He and his research partner, James Watson, focused all their attention on working out the physical configuration – “the physics” – of DNA  before ascertaining its purpose. Later scientists were able to do exactly that, by building on the valuable work of Crick and Watson.

DNA Structure Quote

It is at the intersection of disciplines where creative catalysis happens.

 

Renaissance Woman

However, as the 21st century progresses and with the recent advent of transformative technologies like 3D printing, polymaths, like Neri Oxman, may have the opportunity to thrive once more.

IMG_1209

 

With a background in both medicine and architecture, MIT-based technologist Neri Oxman has pioneered new methods of designing and manufacturing construction materials.

     In a talk she gave at the annual PopTech conference in 2012, she described the philosophical approach to her work as:

“Ask not what science can do for design but what design can do for science.”

                                                                               ……..

 

 

Neri Oxman (2012)  (2012) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Informed by the way nature “designs”, Oxman uses 3D printing to create one of a kind artifacts, the material and anatomical structure of which mimics the biological entities they are modelled upon.

One of her works, Minotaur Head with Lamella,  exhibited at The Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2012, as part of the “Design and Mythology” collection is “a shock absorbing flexible helmet” that is designed to:

 

“…flex and deform in order to provide comfort and high levels of mechanical compliance. The head shield introduces variable thickness of the shell, informed by anatomical and physiological data derived from real human skull data. Medical scan data of a human head is selected from an open repository. Two sets of data are created and trimmed from the scan using medical imagining software simulating the hard tissue (skull) and the soft tissue (skin and muscle). Combined, these two data sets make up the bone-to-skin threshold informing helmet thickness and material composition according to its biological counterpart such that bony perturbations in the skull are shielded with soft lamellas designed as spatial sutures.” (MIT Media Lab)

 

Minoutaur Head with Lamella (2012) Source: Media Lab MIT/ Neri Oxman Projects

3D printing presents many collaborative opportunities for art and science.

From now onwards, we will experience far greater integration between technology and art than ever before: the emergence of art-science. This is already happening with enormous success in digital publishing and game design, where many modern day Da Vincis are to be found.

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See our list: Game Developers at the Philosophical Frontier
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Is Mankind the Next Great Design Project?

It is a significant historical period we are living through. New cultural paradigms are being forged as human lives become ever more entwined with technological processes.

The futurist and trend forecaster Ray Kurzweil has long predicted that in the 21st century humanity will “transcend” biology, by merging with technology. In his best-selling 2005 book The Singularity is Near: When Human Beings Transcend Biology he predicts that humans will be routinely augmenting their bodies and intelligence with technology by the year 2045.

Thought we have yet to develop technology that actually merges with our bodies, we are certainly becoming more reliant on it to mediate and organise our daily lives, with mobile devices serving as intellectual prosthetics. Complete physical integration does seem like the logical next step.

But is this more science fiction than fact? Writer and technology entrepreneur Jaron Lanier, has referred to the cultish nature of “The Singularity” concept, which is often treated with religious reverence by its adherents.

It is a vision of the future worth paying attention to though, as Lanier warns, “these ideas (have) tremendous currency in Silicon Valley; these are guiding principles, not just amusements, for many of the most influential technologists.”

Indeed Ray Kurzweil has now been appointed as Director of Engineering at Google, giving him the opportunity to realise many of his prophecies.

Rebirth

As it was during The Renaissance, ours is a highly innovative age, a golden era for those interested in collapsing the historical barriers between art and science.

3D printing, Web 2.0 and mobile technology supply us with a glimpse of our digitally consolidated future.

We are experiencing reinvention as technology fuses with many aspects of everyday life.

The coupling of art and science in The Renaissance gave birth to Da Vinci, its archetypal man.

Our time may even see the human race reborn.

Featured Image Credit: Female Head by Leonardo Da Vinci Source: WikiPaintings