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

A Choreographed Dance Through Time

Smiling Victorians

To everything turn, turn, turn; there is a season.”

You may be familiar with this verse, adapted from Ecclesiastes for song by the musician Peter Seeger in the late 1950s and later sung by The Byrds in 1965.

An excerpt from the original:

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”

Ecclesiastes 3

It’s in the changing of the seasons, that I become most aware of the passage of time, as autumn gently gives way to winter, which always seems too long; and spring and summer, when they finally arrive, too short.

The flow of time is mysterious like that, it flows ever forward and never backwards, and yet so much of existence, like the seasons, seems cyclical; hence the eternal wisdom of the words above.

Strangely, I had that same feeling looking at pictures of smiling Victorians.

The smile broke the time barrier.

The usually severe Victorians suddenly seemed closer in time than they ever had before. The photographs could have been taken yesterday. Over a hundred years separating us seemed like hardly any distance at all.

We live in an age obsessed with “the future” and the next big thing, as if human development occurs in a straight line with no opportunity for rear-view glances.

But, as the beautiful poetic words from Ecclesiastes suggest, the human psyche is rooted in something more ancient and abiding than the latest technological fad.

Hands joining hands in a Hora-like dance that has lasted millennia, the dancers change, but the steps endure.

Featured Image Credit: “Smiling Victorians”

Mob Morality

twitter mob

Nothing quite affords anonymity like the Internet does. One may choose to be anonymous there, and by its very nature you already are: a minute part of an enormous data set, where our merged identities form a gigantic collective, infinitesimal flashes of electricity, amongst trillions of others, in a remote server farm far, far away.

On a personal level, anonymity is a convenient little costume to slip into online. It usually acquits you of any repercussions; one can perform traceless acts of virtual violence, then withdraw from the online world and carry on with everyday life, as if nothing had happened. Although your chosen prey may not find it so easy to afterwards.

Social media enhances and amplifies this phenomenon, and it is there that something really ugly emerges:

Mobs.

They are a permanent feature of life on social media now. Outraged mobs on Twitter resemble scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, where a lone individual is pursued by a swirl of angry, pecking tweeting.

Believing might makes right, these mobs, by sheer virtue of their numbers, demand conformity and total obedience. It doesn’t matter how much hurt they cause, they operate in an anonymous, consequence-free zone where power is crowdsourced and responsibility distributed.

Even though a member of the mob may go by their real name, they are anonymised through their absorption into the furious multitude.

No one has yet been held responsible for the vicious attack on the family of the late Sunil Tripathi, the student wrongly identified as one of the Boston bombers by the misguided hordes on social media.

Jittery advertisers, afraid of compromising their brands, often acquiesce to the mob’s demands by pulling financial support from individuals and websites that have incurred the mob’s wrath, serving only to legitimise it and setting dangerous precedents that are wide open to future abuse.

As a result of these faceless gangs on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, etc., people have had their livelihoods destroyed or been forced out of their jobs, reputations irreparably damaged. Often for the simple sin of expressing an opinion the mob don’t like.

This is the true horror of social media and modern Internet culture, how destructive it can be of individuality and independent thought.

A while ago, I had a run in with someone on Twitter over an article I wrote, he said to me something I can’t remember verbatim, but to the effect of: “Now you see the reaction to your blog, maybe you’ll rethink what you said.”

What he seemed to be implying with this statement is that my conscience should be externally, rather than internally guided. Instead of speaking my own unique truth, I should allow it to be defined by others, should it come into conflict with their worldview.

This is mob morality, which is, in fact, no morality at all.

It is merely a display of pure brute force, where the ends justify the means, and righteous anger devolves into verbal abuse. One concedes not to a superior argument, but is overwhelmed by a wave of rage.

In this new social order, the reaction to content is more important than the relative merits of the content itself – and in the hits-hungry digital economy, probably more valuable.

And there’s the rub: unscrupulous, controversy-courting media loves whipping up the easily manipulated mob to get more traffic to their sites. They are the ones who truly benefit from discord. It’s an effective strategy: divide and conquer.

In the midst of these cynical agendas, we must work hard to retain our individual identity, listen carefully to our inner voice and not reduce our complex humanity to someone else’s triumphant spike on a Google Analytics report.

Featured Image Credit: Candice Holdsworth

Love Letter to Science, from a Romantic Aesthete

Particles

It is with some interest that I am following the ‘discovery’, or perhaps, ‘confirmation of’ the existence of the Higgs boson particle. And although it is not with the in depth knowledge of someone who can credibly hold forth on the minutiae of what the actual implications of this are for The Standard Model, I can still take pleasure in this advancement of human knowledge. It brings up so many themes and topics, too numerous to discuss here, but perhaps the most important is that the scientific method has once again won through with its humble, painstaking approach to problem-solving. Which is something valuable in a world of ideological and political grandstanding. It has the courage to stand humbly before the unknown, and if proven wrong, to admit to it and begin again; all along knowing (without 100% certainty of course) that the journey of discovery does not end with one erroneous turn.

This, in contrast, to the many divisive figures today, in the media and the public sphere, who resemble small children, fingers defiantly stuck in their ears, yelling nonsensically. To make the analogy more accurate, we would have to multiply the number of children (at a conservative estimate) by about ten thousand, all yelling at once, in a crowd.

So, when the intellectual arrogance and pessimism of the media chorus becomes too much, the place to go to is the serenely scientific Carl Sagan, who perhaps married art and science more successfully than any other public figure. In the series Cosmos (1980), his precise, poetic rendering of the Universe, allowed noobs like me to entertain the absurd notion that we understood exactly what he was talking about.

Left: Carl Sagan, featuring Stephen Hawking – ‘A Glorious Dawn’ (Symphony of Science) 

 

Indeed, he was a champion of wanting to know, resisting the comforts of complacency. And that is not something only science can lay claim to. I’ve never understood the often aloof relations between art and science; because if we were ever to reach Mars, in that first expedition, along with the scientists, we would have to send philosophers and artists and poets too. Because, when combined correctly, there is no coupling more capable of achieving the sublime.

Love and Affection

For those of you who have been following Athena and Wry Republic for some time, you will remember that I wrote last year about my brother’s time in the ICU ward after undergoing brain surgery. It was an instructive period that taught me a great deal about fragility and kindness.

This last week, my brother found himself in that place again. It’s been a tough few years for him, he’s recovering well after this latest bout of surgery. I hope it will be the last time he will have to endure it and will finally be able to move on with his life, unblighted by malady.

These past seven days have taken on a strange routine, ordered by the hospital’s visiting hours and the duration of the journey there and back.

All other duties and obligations faded in importance next to the primacy of this daily task, which my family and I completed happily everyday.

For anyone who has spent a prolonged period of time in a hospital will know that even in the grim circumstances, a camaraderie develops between the staff, visitors and patients. A tacit acknowledgement that we are all in this together.

The nursing staff were saintlike when stress and worry prevented us from being as friendly and forthcoming as we normally would be. They were patient and understanding beyond the call of duty, leading my brother to remark on how under appreciated they are.

Love and affection, the only two things that make this brief time suspended in space, orbiting the inferno, truly worth it.

By The Rivers of Babylon We Sat Down and Wept

9/11: An event that ripped a hole in the fabric of our history. The time before it, seems idyllic.

Whilst pondering the historical significance of 9/11, we came across this rather beautiful a capella version of Babylon by the American singing trio, Mountain Man.

While some may see the choice of song here as a political point (‘Zion’ may seem a loaded term after all), it seems appropriate, now, more than ever, owing to its evocation of past and present, as we look back on a decade of war and take a moment to consider our place in history. So we ask you not to consider Zion in such narrow terms, but to apply it more broadly. As representative of a bright, shining past that will forever elude us. Zion is a lost innocence. This generation’s at least.

The twenty-first century has, for the most part, been defined by contradictions between what we thought about our human future and what we have found awaiting us. After a century of seemingly relentless war and the threat of nuclear annihilation, we seemed poised for a greater future, in the 1990s. The Soviet Union fell and thus appeared to bring an end to the age of great power competition; whereupon Francis Fukuyama declared the ’End of History’. New technology was causing the world to shrink and the march of globalisation swept across the world.

Then, at the dawn of the new human century, history came crashing down on us again, out of a clear September sky. It seems both tragic and fitting that we faced an enemy that wished to achieve a twisted parody of what some had thought we had achieved already: an end to history, a return to an imagined perfect epoch.

What has been achieved since then? Can the human race claim to be any more unified? The old Western order strains to hold itself together, fractured by economic chaos and endless war. The cradle of civilisation is racked by revolution and counter-revolution and our hatreds and misunderstandings seem more fervent than ever. We gaze, fearful but resigned, into the abyss.

The events of the last decade embody the state of timeless historical perpetuity to which Robin Jones refers in his piece about that blackest of Septembers. What is to become of us? The answers may surprise us. Our idea of history is more realistic now and more conducive to building a future from the fragments of our present. Our civilisation has not fallen; we have limped on in spite of our frailties. New discoveries have in many ways defined the 2010s, our artists and dreamers continue to cultivate great beauty and the human capacity for great love and empathy remains undiminished.

Francis Fukuyama was wrong, but so were the men who sought a return to the past. History cannot be brought to an end nor can it be revived. The goals of those men were impossible and thus their failure inevitable. There is no deterministic force called ‘history’ and the future is an untold story of which we are the narrators. Most of all there is no past, only the memory of what is lost.

9/11: The long fading memory of History

(Originally published September 11, 2012)

It is a cliché but also a truism that everybody remembers where they were when it happened, or at least when they found out about it. Eleven years on, it is worth reflecting on this memory. I refer not to the need to pay tribute to the dead (also a worthy and, in my opinion, necessary activity) but to notice how an event that, for so many years, has seemed current has now passed into history. This does not diminish it as a climatic and game-changing event for the entire civilised (and uncivilised) world.

I recall that the day after the event, by strange and auspicious coincidence, I was to have my first class of ‘American History’ for my high school History course. We walked in and sat in silence, the air still abuzz with a surreal electricity from the events of the day before. Our teacher walked  around the classroom with a handful of photocopies of the infamous image of the burning towers now seared on the brain of almost every human being, gave us each a copy, walked to the front of the class and simply said: “This is history”.

At the time it didn’t feel like history. I had studied history and there was something intangible about it, distant and arcane. This was the very essence of ‘NOW’, the rubble still smouldered, mobile phones still screeched desperately from under the rubble, fanatics ululated joyously around burning American flags and everywhere ordinary citizens fearfully contemplated ‘what’s next?’. We were at the threshold of a savage new millennium.

The foul architect of that atrocity lies dead at the bottom of the ocean, but the consequences of that day still ripple through global society and politics. Hatred towards Western secular society still ferments among fundamentalists, and the need to stand up to that hatred is still manipulated for political gain in the West. Britain and America are still dug into a seemingly intractable conflict in Afghanistan and much of the Middle East remains unstable. But the ‘now’ has extended into a kind of historical perpetuity. We are paying a price to history, a debt we did not ask for but incurred nonetheless.

Anxiety

One of the things I have had to accept about myself as I have grown older is that I am a worrier. I have never been and probably never will be one of those people who take a lazily stoic attitude to life, confronting every problem with a shrug of the shoulders and another swig of beer.

But accepting this aspect of my personality has the benefit of giving me some insight into what it is to worry. To worry is to project oneself forward and imagine the potential negative outcomes of a situation, fixating on hypothetical outcomes, rather than focusing on the situation as it is now. One of the best ways to cope with this tendency is to develop the ability to laugh at oneself. This provides a natural check against overly obsessive thinking and facilitates the self-awareness to know when your thinking is getting just plain silly, and then to laugh at it rather than perpetuating obsessive thinking.

What can also help is to reflect on what fear is. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reflection that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” has been so criminally over-quoted that for a long time I didn’t give it much thought. But when you unpack it, you can start to appreciate its wisdom. Think of the last time you had an intimidating event approaching: a high pressure job interview, an exam, a medical procedure or anything of that nature. One thing to notice is that often the period of fear preceding the event is much more unpleasant than the event itself. “Fear itself” does not have any actual content independent of the event that it is anticipating – it is essentially the creation of additional unnecessary unpleasantness.

It is in this way that fear becomes crippling and self-perpetuating. A number of years ago I struggled with anxiety and panic attacks. Once you experience your first panic attack, it is not necessarily what triggered the first attack that you dread but the sensation of panic. Thereafter, it is the anticipation of having another panic attack which becomes the trigger. Having spoken to others who have experienced the same or similar problems, I now know that this is a very common phenomenon.

Fear, as an emotion, is often nothing more than a conduit for more fear. It is virulent. It multiplies and divides, eventually overwhelming your psyche if it is allowed to. Unfortunately, fear has survival value in evolutionary terms and is thus ineradicable in us.

But it can be conquered. The opposite of fear is acceptance, even to the extent of accepting that you are afraid and that it’s okay to be.

If you feel afraid, it is worth asking yourself, what are you really afraid of?