The Italian polymath came top of a poll to find science’s greatest genius, receiving 29% of the votes, just 2% ahead of the physicist Albert Einstein. German mathematician Bernhard Riemann (12%), naturalist Charles Darwin (12%) and Polish-born physicist and chemist Marie Skłodowska-Curie (5%) finished in third, fourth and fifth place respectively.
Leonardo da Vinci is today best known for his artistic endeavours, painting the iconic Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. However, his notebooks reveal another side to him – an analytical, scientific side with a voracious appetite for knowledge. He carried out experiments and sketched all manner of weird and wonderful contraptions, including musical instruments, a mechanical knight, diving apparatus, a parachute, and various flying machines such as a glider and a proto-helicopter.
“Da Vinci was a mathematician, engineer, botanist, cartographer and much more, so it’s hard to single out one achievement. He was remarkable really. This is a guy who had no formal schooling. His trade was a painter and he learnt what he did through deduction.
Da Vinci’s studies in anatomy started with his desire to create realistic figures and therefore wanting to know how the body was constructed. A lot of what he discovered in that process is consistent with what we know today. When I look at his drawings they could easily have been lifted from text books that I regularly refer to. This was in the 1400s, so I think to dismiss him as an artist who just dabbled in science would be a misstatement.
He tells us a lot about what it means to be a scientist. The idea that we have both artists and scientists is actually a fairly recent one. It’s only in the last couple of hundred years that we’ve made the distinction. Kids in school effectively have to chose between doing arts and science subjects and cast themselves as one or the other, when actually doing science well is a deeply creative endeavour, one that requires you to observe and document the world in the same way that a good artist would.
I nominate him as my favourite genius not just because he excels in so many different spheres, but because he shows us what science is really all about.”