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Cover of book "Leonardo's Science" by Fritjof Capra

New Book: The Science of Leonardo

From the Preface:
Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps the greatest master painter and genius of the Renaissance, has been the subject of hundreds of scholarly and popular books. His enormous oeuvre, said to include over 100,000 drawings and over 6,000 pages of notes, and the extreme diversity of his interests have attracted countless scholars from a wide range of academic and artistic disciplines.

However, there are surprisingly few books about Leonardo's science, even though he left voluminous notebooks full of detailed descriptions of his experiments, magnificent drawings, and long analyses of his findings. Moreover, most authors who have discussed Leonardo's scientific work have looked at it through Newtonian lenses, and I believe this has often prevented them from understanding its essential nature.

Leonardo intended to eventually present the results of his scientific research as a coherent, integrated body of knowledge. He never managed to do so, because throughout his life he always felt more compelled to expand, refine, and document his investigations than to organize them in a systematic way. Hence, in the centuries since his death, scholars studying his celebrated Notebooks have tended to see them as disorganized and chaotic.  In Leonardo's mind, however, his science was not disorganized at all. It gave him a coherent, unifying picture of natural phenomena — but a picture that is radically different from that of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton.

Only now, five centuries later, as the limits of Newtonian science are becoming all too apparent and the mechanistic Cartesian worldview is giving way to a holistic and ecological view not unlike Leonardo's, can we begin to appreciate the full power of his science and its great relevance for our modern era.

My intent is to present a coherent account of the scientific method and achievements of the great genius of the Renaissance and evaluate them from the perspective of today’s scientific thought. Studying Leonardo from this perspective will not only allow us to recognize his science as a solid body of knowledge. It will also show why it cannot be understood without his art, nor his art without the science.

As a scientist and author, I depart in this book from my usual work. At the same time, however, it has been a deeply satisfying book to write, as I have been fascinated by Leonardo da Vinci's scientific work for over three decades. When I began my career as a writer in the early 1970s, my plan was to write a popular book about particle physics. I completed the first three chapters of the manuscript, then abandoned the project to write The Tao of Physics, into which I incorporated most of the material from the early manuscript. My original manuscript began with a brief history of modern Western science, and opened with the beautiful statement by Leonardo da Vinci on the empirical basis of science that now serves as the epigraph for this book.

Since paying tribute to Leonardo as the first modern scientist (long before Galileo, Bacon, and Newton) in my early manuscript, I have retained my fascination with his scientific work, and over the years have referred to it several times in my writings, without, however, studying his extensive Notebooks in any detail. The impetus to do so came in the mid-1990s, when I saw a large exhibition of Leonardo's drawings at The Queens Gallery at Buckingham Palace in  London.

As I gazed at those magnificent drawings juxtaposing, often on the same page, architecture and human anatomy, turbulent water and turbulent air, water vortices, the flow of human hair and the growth patterns of grasses, I realized that Leonardo's systematic studies of living and nonliving forms amounted to a science of quality and wholeness that was fundamentally different from the mechanistic science of Galileo and Newton. At the core of his investigations, it seemed to me, was a persistent exploration of patterns, interconnecting phenomena from a vast range of fields.

Having explored the modern counterparts to Leonardo's approach, known today as complexity theory and systems theory, in several of my previous books, I felt that it was time for me to study Leonardo's Notebooks in earnest and to evaluate his scientific thought from the perspective of the most recent advances in modern science.

Although Leonardo left us, in the words of the eminent Renaissance scholar Kenneth Clark, "one of the most voluminous and complete records of a mind at work that has come down to us," his Notebooks give us hardly any clues to the author's character and personality. Leonardo, in his paintings as well as in his life, seemed to cultivate a certain sense of mystery. Because of this aura of mystery and because of his extraordinary talents, Leonardo da Vinci became a legendary figure even during his lifetime, and his legend has been amplified in different variations in the centuries after his death.

Throughout history, he personified the age of the Renaissance, yet each era "reinvented" Leonardo according to the zeitgeist of the time. To quote Kenneth Clark again, "Leonardo is the Hamlet of art history whom each of us must recreate for himself." It is therefore  inevitable that in the following pages I have also had to reinvent Leonardo. The image that emerges from my account is, in contemporary scientific terms, one of Leonardo as a systemic thinker, ecologist, and complexity theorist; a scientist and artist with a deep reverence for all life, and as a man with a strong desire to work for the benefit of humanity.

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