This is the essay written for the annual Anglo-Chinese Junior College (ACJC) Science Essay Competition in 2013. The essay explores the life and work of Leonardo Da Vinci. The essay was also published on the ACJC Science Journal.
The innumerable admirers of the world’s most mysterious smile will probably be upset upon hearing the fact that their beloved painter of Mona Lisa, Leonardo Da Vinci, was only a part-time artist. Indeed, knowledge was the only great love of Leonardo, and he stepped into diverse areas of study including painting, engineering, chemistry, geometry, botany, and anatomy. Even today, Leonardo is still everywhere – his name has been immortalized by the furniture brand, the million-copy bestseller, and almost every academic essay on the Renaissance. More importantly, his creative insights, which were perceived as abstract and unattainable during his time, have continuously served as a source of inspiration for many epoch-making inventions in the subsequent eras long after his death.
One would probably ask: Why on earth do we respect Leonardo more than any other brilliant brain of the Renaissance? The more obvious question is, why are we so willing to fulfill the dreams of a man who died almost 500 years ago?
The reasons are hard to cover in a one-thousand-word essay but definitely worth an attempt. A brilliant soul with an inquiry mind, Leonardo’s universal interests and curiosity are well-known. He observed and believed that everything connects, a flexible thinking habit that served as the catalyst for his creative thoughts and inspired others to think of the relationships between different things and also how these things could be combined to make something completely different. One’s knowledge may be limited, but one’s imagination is definitely unlimited. Subconsciously, Leonardo had helped us define dreams. Dreams do not come from daily routine; rather, they come from one’s imagination as well as integration of different areas of knowledge and senses. They desire to challenge our daily routine instead of following it.
Leonardo dared to dream of those others did not dare to think about. In his point of view, the mysterious and profound nature was his source of inspiration. This was evident in his life-long dream of flying: Leonardo was once fascinated by birds. In his later journals, there was a detailed study of the flight of birds and several different structural designs for wings. He compared the wings of birds with those of smaller, lighter bats. He was obviously trying to link the weight of some flying creatures to the sizes of their wings. He suggested that an object offers as much resistance to the air as the air does to the object. This is undoubtedly correct because, according to Newton’s Third Law of Motion, there is an equal and opposite reaction for every action.
In reality, however, the machines that he designed were not practical and would not have worked: The power necessary to drive them could not be generated by any single man living before the Industrial Revolution. Yet, they are examples of magnificent failures; first ideas, while not successful, still tell us what the next version should incorporate or what new questions should be asked and answered. Leonardo never fulfilled his dream of human flight, but he learned much about aerodynamics along the way. Thanks to his unwillingness to abandon his dream, Leonardo and his research had triggered the development of modern planes and helicopters, and eventually benefited subsequent generations.
Surprisingly, four hundred years after Leonardo’s prescient musings, a Russian-American aeronautical engineer Ivan Sikorsky produced a rotary-wing flying machine which was the first successful helicopter powered by a gasoline engine and stabilized with a propeller in the rear. The inspiration for the design of the helicopter, Sikorsky claimed, harked back to 1901, when he, as a 12-year-old child, had first seen Leonardo’s rough sketch of the aerial screw. Leonardo did not realize his dream of flying himself, but his detailed research made heavier-than-air flight possible by the use of mechanical flapping-wing device. His sketch had been so comprehensive that a 12-year-old child living in a completely different time could interpret and be inspired by it. Leonardo’s dream had ultimately become the reality.
Leonardo can still serve as an inspiration for the future scientific development because as mentioned before, he was known as the man who flexibly integrated different areas of knowledge, especially science and arts. For example, The Vitruvian Man is often regarded as the icon of the Renaissance; it apparently shows that Leonardo once had a great interest in proportions. In this masterpiece, if we regard four fingers as one palm, a foot will be four palms, a cubit will be six palms, a pace will be four cubits, and a man will be 24 palms. It is also widely believed that the ratio between the radius of the circle and the side of the square was determined according to the Golden Ratio. Besides painting, musical notes can also be recorded and interpreted according to certain mathematical ratios. All these evidence contribute to a conclusion that mathematics and science, which are widely used by us to explain the universe logically, can be artistic and appreciated by us as well. However, sadly, artistic subjects and scientific subjects are clearly distinguished in schools nowadays. I sincerely hope that, in the near future, the barrier between arts and science can be eliminated; science and arts can guide and advance each other.
Some people live plain, mundane lives. When they pass on, few remember them. But there are those who live their lives for the fulfillment of their dreams, and when they pass on, we continue to speak of their work and be inspired by their example. After reading about Leonardo, I can understand the throngs of visitors in front of Mona Lisa a bit better – they are not only appreciating the masterpiece, but also giving thanks to a man who gives them courage to dream and inspires them to follow their dreams.
A dream is just like the dawn of an improvement, a change or even a revolution that leads to scientific or social progress. The bright future of the human civilization is calling us to pour our perspiration as fuel on the spark of the inspiration. There is always brilliance in this world, and such brilliance is worth striving for.
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