Leonardo Da Vinci – The First Scientist – Michael White

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This is an interesting book of popular history giving a clear account of DaVinci’s life and some insights into his work.

I knew little or nothing about the subject before reading this book, and it also taught me quite a lot about the cultural context of Renaissance Italy.  This was particularly welcome as I had never before been able, or even attempted to understand the relationship between DaVinci and his contemporaries – Machiavelli, the Borgias, the Medicis, French intervention in Italy, the various popes, and the political and social environment that gave rise to the Renaissance.  I might be tempted to read further in this area.

Of course DaVinci is an enigmatic character, and whilst he left many notes there are few definitive sources of information about his everyday life.  White seems to rely on some key sources for the majority of the book, and the narrative is simple and plain.  However White has an axe to grind and it is evident in the subtitle of the book – The First Scientist.  When he writes about this aspect of DaVinci’s work it becomes clear that White is arguing a case, not stating facts, but he is not always explicit about this, and some elements of his argument are open to criticism.

At one point, commenting about DaVinci’s observations of the elongation of ripples caused in a stream by a pebble, he says, “This is clearly a description of the Doppler effect  .. rediscovered in the 1840s.”  I think this is a bit tenuous.  Doppler hypothesised about the behaviour of light waves, DaVinci described the ripples he saw, which is something quite different: I think most children would notice at some point the effect of a moving stream on ripples.  The fact that DaVinci noted it down does not make him a scientist.

Later, White comments that DaVinci’s statement, “Motion is the cause of every life” is as scientific as any twenty first century description of the same thing.  Again this kind of simple philosophising and reflection is an innate part of human nature and not the musings of a unique scientist.

There are other places where White’s account is imprecise and weak.  His view that DaVinci’s family life meant that his mother came to “represent confusion” is made as a criticism of Freud’s analysis.  DaVinci was a bastard child whose father left him with grandparents and whose mother married another man in the same village, and brought up their children, leaving him as an outsider.  I think this would be more than confusing.  It would have made me very angry, jealous and resentful.  I think DaVinci probably felt the same.

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