These are my notes from the opening session, “The Renaissance: Leonardo daVinci & the Creative Mind” by Bulent Atalay at the THE NEW RENAISSANCE: A Revolution of Creativity and Learning conference. The mobile website for this conference (which is optimized for the iPhone / iPod Touch and other mobile devices) was created using the open source program MobilAP. The bio of Dr. Bulent Atalay on our conference mobile website states:

Bulent Atalay, author of Math and the Mona Lisa: the Art and Science of Leonaardo da Vinci (Smithsonian Books, 2004), and Leonardo’s Universe: the Renaissance World of Leonardo da Vinci (National Geographic Books, 2009), is a scientist and artist with roots in Turkey, England, and the United States. His grandfather was a young Turkish military officer who survived eight months of the Gallipoli Campaign of WWI, and was subsequently killed while fighting Lawrence of Arabia in 1916. His father was also a military officer, as well as a diplomat who held successive assignments as military attache during the post-war (WWII) period to London, Paris, and Washington. Read “A Tribute to General Kemal Atalay”

Atalay received an early classical education in England and the United States, attending Eton (UK) and St. Andrew’s School (Delaware), site of the 1989 Robin Williams film, Dead Poet’s Society. He went into physics by accident when a secretary in the college admissions office misread his career aspirations as “physicist” instead of “physician,” but he found he had latent interests in physics. He received his professional training – BS, MS, MA, Ph.D. and post-doctoral work in theoretical physics – at Georgetown, UC-Berkeley, Princeton and Oxford. Now, he is a professor of physics at the University of Mary Washington, an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia, and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. An accomplished artist, Atalay has presented his works in one-man exhibitions in London and Washington, and his two books of lithographs – Lands of Washington and Oxford and the English Countryside – can be found in the permanent collections of Buckingham Palace, the Smithsonian, and the White House. Four years after the release of Math and the Mona Lisa by Smithsonian Books in April 2004, the book has appeared in eleven languages, with the twelfth, Polish, still pending. Leonardo’s Universe, coauthored with former student Keith Wamsley, was released by National Geographic Books on January 6, 2009, although the Britannica Blog published on Dec. 30, 2008, jumped the gun, listing it as one of “Ten Must-Have Books for 2008.”


I’ve known 21 Nobel prize winners in physics

Smart people come from smart families
– in smart families, there are lots of books
– there is a correlation between how many books (George Will published these)
– the mindset of reading books is key

Rarely we get transformative geniuses
– no one will argue with Shakespeare as the greatest writer
– we know little about him as a person
– we know a great deal about his writing
– Italians may say “Dante” to this question

30 years ago I attended a high powered conference with 18 Nobel prize winners, over 30 powerful scientists
– we were talking about the plausibility of extraterrestrial intelligence in the rigor and framework of science
– how many of you believe in extraterrestrial intelligence?
– how many of you believe in terrestrial intelligence
– we were asking how valid the Drakes 7 factor formula is
– someone said we could be off by a factor of 100 on any of these 7 factors

Story from a Nobel prize winner: woman was about to have her fifth child and was worried
– doctor said not to worry
– she got frustrated, slammed her fist down, and said “According to statistics, every fifth child born in the world is Chinese”

This is a true story

Lancet (?) medical journal I read had this same story, but had extenuating circumstances
– previous children born deaf, mute, blind, etc, and the 5th had tuberculosis
– how many of you would choose to terminate the pregnancy?
– you voting on your mobile devices?

This was a true story, and the 5th child was Beethoven

Another anecdote about Adolf Hitler and his parents choosing to have him

Another story about an impoverished 15 year old in May 15, 1452
– was Leonardo da Vinci, a “love child”
– he could have become a notary if he followed his family elders
– lived with his mom till age 5, then father took him for next 10 years
– moved to Florence at age 15

Andrea di Cione, known as Verrocchio
– always told his students to “learn from nature”
– learn the body from the inside out

In my past studies, the most important lecture I ever heard was about “the divine symmetries”
There are really “two Leonardos”
Leonardo Fibonacci di Pisa (educated in northern Africa)
– 1202 he wrote the Book of Calculation, the Liber Abaci.
– he proposed a new system based on both Arabic and Hindu symbols
– our system of notation is based on numbers of dashes in a symbol
– zero was borrowed from the Hindus
– Number for 9 was borrowed from the Arabs
– the 13th chapter was the most interesting in this book: “the problem of rabbits”
— they are going to reproduce, but they never die, there is no emigration, they just keep reproducing
— the algorithm, we figured out in the last few decades, is that the numbers he discovered are “nature’s numbers”
– we’ve now connected these to nature

If you count a specific species of sunflowers, you will find seed pairs which use Fibonacci numbers (55 and 34, 39 and 55, etc)
– same with pine cones

Leonardo was left handed
– All American striped ties are negatively sloped
– European striped ties have positively slopes


So what does this have to do with Leonardo or Fibonacci?
– now drawing a tree
– if you count the number of branches at any level, you get a Fibonacci sequence
– most self-respecting artists wouldn’t go around counting branches, however Leonardo did
– he was always observing, taking notes
– any one of his pages of notes are now worth over $1 million each
– all notes are written in mirror script from right to left
– to read his notes, you must use a mirror or use PhotoShop to flip them
– he was not being secretive, he was doing this for himself
– if you are left handed and you right left to right, it is much harder: smudges,

How many lefties in the audience?
– How many left handed Italians?

Now discussing the golden ratio

Greeks had discovered the same ratio using Geometry
– used this when building the most beautiful building in the world: The Parthenon
– The golden rectangle: shape of a business card

Vitruvian Man: Leonardo’s drawing
– Leonardo got the ratio exactly right

I had called my book “Math and the Mona Lisa: The Art and Science of Leonardo da Vinci” originally “The Two Leonardos” but publishers didn’t think it would sell with that title
– this also gave license to put the Mona Lisa on the cover

Leonardo had SO many passions and interests

I am so glad Apple is sponsoring our event here, I am an Apple user, my son is an Apple user
– it is almost a choice of religion

quotation from Humberto Echo that Macs are the Catholics of the computer world, PCs are the Protestants, they can interpret things any way they want

Parthenon: columns are designed to visually meet in the sky miles up

Now showing photos of Florence, Italy in the time of Leonardo
– David became the symbol of Leonardo
– showing sequence of David statuary
David, by Michelangelo
David, by Donatello
David, by Bernini
David, by Andrea del Verrocchio

Leonardo only did about a dozen paintings
– when Leonardo saw Michelangelo’s angel, he never drew again
– these meetings of genius rarely happen

Story of Newton meeting his mentor again, after discovering the foundation of modern science

story of Leonardo: pacifist working as a military engineer
– similar to story of the atomic bomb development
– letter Leonardo
– many of his ideas were mental inventions, some were actually built and repliated
– he invented robotics 500 years ago

Leonardo wanted to know how to fly more than anything else
– lots of drawings of the motion of wings

Ted Williams used to claim he could see the writings on a baseball coming at him at 90 mph
– Leonardo had that ability to see and draw the wings of birds in flight

20th century: Sikorski invented the helicopter based on Leonardo’s ideas

It took about a century for the modern bicycle to take shape

Leonardo and Galileo did experiments with falling bodies, not both at the Leaning Tower of Pisa
– Galileo published his notes, Leonardo did not publish
– if Leonardo HAD published, our level of technological advancement and sophistication may have been more more advanced today than it is now


Leonardo designed the reflecting telescope, we’re not sure if it ever was built by him

In biology, Leonardo was best at anatomy
– it was a crime punishable by death to make drawings like he made of the human body, from cadavers during autopsies

Leonardo was a relentlessly curious person
– did a comparative analysis of 100 year old man and child: describing differences in blood vessels which led into the heart

quotation from Leonardo:

Nature being capricious and taking pleasure in creating and producing a continuous sucession of lives and forms because she knows that they serve to increase her terrestrial substance, is more ready and swift in her creating than time is in destroying, and therefore she has ordained that many animals shall serve as food one for the other; and as this does not satisfy her desire she sends forth frequently certain noisome and pestilential vapours and continual plagues upon the vast accumulations and herds of animals and especially upon human beings who increase very rapidly because other animals do not feed upon them.

Leonardo’s bridge in Norway was designed 500 years before it was built

Line that divides a famous painting down the middle goes through one of the eyes
– this is never taught in art school

See if your single subject photographs follow this model

Leonardo practicing the technique of _____ (left his fingerprints on the painting)

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2 Responses to The Renaissance: Leonardo daVinci & the Creative Mind by Bulent Atalay

  1. Greg says:

    excellent outline, i just recently visited Vinci in Italia… I agree that he didn’t write mirror script to disguise but because it was natural for a left hand to write in this fashion and exercised the right side of his mind more

  2. Lyle Mosher says:

    I am an architect and also left handed. I am sure that the only reason daVinci wrote in mirror script was to avoid smearing his writing with his hand that holds the quill. This will happen with left-to-right writing but going from right to left give the ink a moment to dry. The people of his day were not stupid…it is easy to see that his script was mirror writing. He was only doing it out of practicality…genius!

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