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Video Special: Leonardo da Vinci anatomical drawings come to London

Source Wiki: Self-Portrait

Leonardo da Vinci is arguably the greatest polymath of all time; renowned for his art, science and invention. The Mona Lisa, of course, is perhaps the world’s most famous painting, and there can be few who have not seen his Vitruvian Man, the sketch of a man with arms and legs outstretched. His inventions (although few were published and the majority made little or no contribution to future technology), include a hang glider and a machine rather like a helicopter.

But for all his fame, there is one area which has perhaps been sightly overlooked until now. Leonardo was an accomplished anatomical artist, fascinated by the study of the human body and eventually filling over 200 pages of his notebook with drawings of the human skeleton, muscles and other features. Much of his work was created from dissecting corpses at various Italian hospitals and as well as pioneering work in the as-yet undefined field of biomechanics, he produced one of the first sketches of a foetus in utero as well as hundreds of studies of animal anatomy which he compared with his human work.f his discoveries about the human were years ahead of their time, why is his work not better known? The simple answer is that the vast majority was unpublished for centuries and it is only with hindsight that we can see what  a great body of work he has produced.

This is all relevant now as his work is about to go on display in London! As part of the Royal Collection, these drawings were kept in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. However, they have now been moved to The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace in preparation for Friday, where they will be open to the public until September. The Nature Video team were lucky enough to secure an invite to view the collection at Windsor Castle and have produced a video with senior curator of the collection, Martin Clayton, talking us through some of the most important pieces.

Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist is open to the public at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace from Friday, 4 May 2012 to Sunday, 7 October 2012


  1. Report this comment

    Gerd Moe-Behrens said:

    A great video. Thanks for sharing.
    Leonardo was a great artist and scientist in one person. This lead us to the question: Is it right to combine art and science, or should art and science be treated as separate disciplines?

    The question about how art and science interact, and if art is an integrated part of scientific work, or should be banned from science, leads us back to discussions of the ancient Greek philosophers and their precursors. The fundamental question was: What is reality? Can we understand the world around us with the help of our senses, or is the world around us a product of our mental concepts? The answers to these questions never were straightforward, and have been heavily discussed during the last 2000 years. During the different periods of history, sometimes it was en vogue to believe that reality is defined by our senses (materialism) other times people preferred to believe that reality is mental (idealism).

    The concept of idealism was profoundly formulated for the first time by Plato (428/7 – 348/7 BC). Later it was enlivened by different Neo-Platonic movements. E.g. Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 –1519), a follower of Neo-Platonism, did not make a clear distinction between art and science. If the reality of the world basically is a mental product, all mental products including art, play an as equally important role.

    Idealistic scientific thinking fell out of favor by the end of the nineteenth century. The main paradigm was now materialism. Idealistic thinking was highly criticized as unscientific. The external world and its observation by experiments became the main subject of science. Reflection about how our brain is structuring the world, and its meaning for scientific discovery were excluded from scientific methodology. Materialistic, scientific approach survived as a leading paradigm until today. Such materialistic orientated science banned art and artistic thinking from science. Art was viewed as a separate area, which could not give valuable contributions to scientific discovery.

    However, a number of twentieth century scientists are known to have concerned themselves with Neo-Platonic, artistic thinking, such as earlier described in e.g. Goethes (1749 – 1832) theory of color, a theory focused on the mental reception of color. Among these modern scientists are the logician and mathematician Kurt Goedel (1906 – 1978), the theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901 – 1976) the mathematical physicist and pioneer of chaos theory Mitchell Feigenbaum (born 1944), to mention a few. Feigenbaum has even said, “Goethe was right about color”! All the above-mentioned use mathematics as their scientific tool. Only mathematics and mathematical logic survived as a respectable science as the paradigm changed to materialism at the turn of the nineteenth century. Mathematics is a product of our brain and thus conceptually idealistic. On first sight a modern eye will often judge idealistic concepts as quite fantastic, naive, strange and far away from all reality. A modern scientist would use exactly these descriptions hearing what Plato claims in his Timaeus; the world is built out of triangles. However, this becomes less suspicious, if one stops to focus on the triangles and starts to reflect over the basic idea behind this concept. In modern theoretical physics we can find such thinking. In quantum theory, as an example, a mathematical model is used to describe the material world of atoms. The Schrödinger equation plays a central role in this theory. The sine function stands central in the solution of this equation. The sine is a function of an angle in the right triangle. So even with his triangles Plato might not have been so wrong and naive as it initially may look.

    Neo-Platonic thinking in science again became acceptable during the last decades. E.g. Norbert Wiener (1894 – 1964, an American mathematician) reintroduced the concept self-organization in 1965 in the second edition of his “Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine” During the years following this publication, the concept of self-organization became popular among scientist working in the field of complex systems. The work of Wiener was influential for the development and understanding of scientific concepts about complex systems. These concepts play an important role in modern scientific movements such as systems biology and synthetic biology.

    Conceptual thinking plays an important role in the contemporary design and art movements. A new intersection between science and art is taking place, since scientific thinking is re-opened for such idealistic concepts. In the following years it will be interesting to see how design and art will influence the development of the field of synthetic biology and vice versa.

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