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Da Vinci’s Key to Creativity Came Straight from Nature
May 15, 2014


He was one of mankind’s ultimate geniuses, but Leonardo da Vinci still felt the need to do some marketing and self-promotion from time to time.

Around the year 1480, applying for a job in Milan, he wrote a letter touting his many skills and accomplishments. Theoretical physicist Bulent Atalay has seen a copy. “He says ‘I can build bridges, I can transport portable bridges, I can build carts that are shielded, I can build cannons that can breach any wall, or walls that no cannonball can breach.’

“At the very end, he says, ‘I also paint.’”

In a talk sprinkled with wry observations and entertaining digressions, Atalay opened a window into the remarkable mind of Leonardo and other great thinkers who have synthesized ideas from art, mathematics and science.

His presentation at the Reid Center, “Leonardo and the Intersection of Art and Science,” was part of the Colloquium lecture series at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Atalay, himself an artist-scientist, is professor emeritus at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He has written best-selling books on the life and times of Leonardo. “Math and the Mona Lisa,” published in 2004, has been translated into 14 languages. His 2009 coffee table volume, “Leonardo’s Universe,” was published by National Geographic Books.

At the Reid Center, Atalay explained how Leonardo began finding inspiration in nature.

Born to an unwed mother in 1452, Leonardo’s future didn’t look bright at first. “Had he been a legitimate child, chances are he would have become a notary like his father and his grandfather and his great-grandfather before him,” Atalay said. Because he was an illegitimate child, he got no formal education. “Absolutely no schooling whatsoever,” Atalay said.

At age 15, Leonardo moved from Vinci to Florence with his father’s family. There he was apprenticed to an artist. “That turned out to be a perfect fit.” The artist instructed the teen to take cues from the natural world. When painting or sculpting human figures, his teacher suggested, it was best to build images from the inside out.

“He had no idea the lengths Leonardo would go to to learn the human body,” Atalay said. By his own count, Leonardo dissected as many as 30 corpses in his lifetime. What he learned was reflected in his famous anatomical drawings.

The celebrated “golden ratio,” a mathematical principle repeated in everything from the arrangement of tree branches to the bones of the human hand, is seen in the master’s work. Known by the Greek letter phi and approximately equal to 1.618, it was first articulated by Leonardo Fibonacci in the year 1202. Nature’s number is all around, even if most of us never notice.

“No self-respecting artist goes around counting tree branches, but Leonardo did,” Atalay said. “He was a scientist doing art. It was always the patterns he was after. Proportions, patterns, the mathematics behind it.”

After his talk, Atalay said scientists and engineers like those at NASA would benefit from following Leonardo’s method.

“I think to optimize creativity, you have to bring together expertise in different fields,” he said. “Obviously, Leonardo is the ultimate scientist-artist-inventor-mathematician … following Leonardo’s lead will not make any of us other Leonardos. But there are things to learn from his example. You should always take notes. You should sketch. Even if you renounce your artistic ability, try to sketch and you will develop it. You will remember things much better.”

History is laden with examples of people who succeeded in making connections between science and art, he said. Charles L. Dodgson, whose pen name was Lewis Carroll, was a mathematician before he wrote classics such as “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

“In the case of Beethoven, without knowing it he was imbuing his music with mathematical patterns, the Fibonacci series,” Atalay said. “If you asked him about the Fibonacci series, he wouldn’t have known about it. He saw it in nature, he found subliminal messages from nature.”

Albert Einstein, on the other hand, pondered the mechanics of the universe, but also loved playing violin, Atalay noted.

 “It’s critical that scientists develop other passions,” he said.


Sam McDonald
NASA Langley Research Center

Physicist, teacher and writer Bulent Atalay has written several books on the life and times of Leonardo da Vinci.
Physicist, teacher and writer Bulent Atalay has written several books on the life and times of Leonardo da Vinci. His talk at NASA's Langley Research Center focused on the connection between art and science.
Image Credit: 
NASA/David C. Bowman
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Page Last Updated: May 15th, 2014
Page Editor: Samuel McDonald