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Leonardo da Vinci was one of the most diversely talented individuals of all time. His "unquenchable curiosity" led him to make discoveries and inventions that were beyond his time, not to mention his numerous artistic masterpieces. Today on SciShow, Hank takes us into the mind of this Renaissance Man and explores some of his many contributions to the world.

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Hank Green: Few people can rival Leonardo da Vinci for the title of Supreme Genius of the Ages. Perhaps known first as an artist, his paintings—The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and The Vitruvian Man—are among the most famous, recognizable and parodied works of all time.

But Leonardo was the very definition of a polymath Renaissance man. In addition to being a visionary painter, he was an engineer, anatomist and chronicler of science. In fact, so vast were his innovations that, today, some argue that he should be thought of as a scientist first.

Unfortunately, most of his scientific work, documented in at least 7000 pages of notes he left behind, remained hidden, lost or scattered around various collections for years, even centuries, after his death. And because he didn’t have a lot of formal training, Leonardo didn't know Latin, so even during his lifetime he wasn’t able to converse much with the academic world, such as it was back then.

So the weird result of all this is that, despite some really pioneering research, Leonardo had a minimal impact on the science and technology of his time. But today, thankfully, we have put enough of the pieces together from the Leonardo puzzle to really see how ahead of his time he was in many ways, and in fact, we're still learning from him.

I mean, looking back, it seems like naming a Ninja Turtle after him was the least we could do.

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Leo was born in 1452 in Vinci, Italy (yes, his name means ‘of Vinci’). He was born out of wedlock to a prominent notary and a young peasant girl and was raised by his father on the family estate. Despite what you might expect from a genius, Da Vinci didn't receive much of a formal education beyond basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. As a budding artist, he apprenticed under the famous Florentine painter and sculptor, Verrocchio, with whom he remained until he became a master in his own right in his mid-twenties.

But to understand how scientifically brilliant and innovative he was, we gotta understand what was going on during his time. In the late 1400s when Leonardo was coming up as a young artist, Europe was essentially devoid of most real science in the modern sense. Much of what we knew about the modern world was garnered from the Bible or passed along from ancient philosophers and physicians, and a lot of that was just laced with superstition or totally wrong.

But Leonardo wasn't hearing any of that noise. He was influenced by the ancients, but he was also all about systematic observation, experimentation, and reasoning. While Arabic scholars were 'way ahead of the rest of the world in their scientific methods, back in Europe, Leo was using an empirical approach to science a hundred years before Francis Bacon and Galileo started spouting their ideas. Just listen to this passage from da Vinci's notes:

First I shall do some experiments before I proceed farther, because my intention is to cite experience first and then, with reasoning, show why such experience is bound to operate in such a way. And this is the true rule by which those who speculate about the effects of nature must proceed.

This sounds pretty obvious now, but at the time in Europe it was unheard of.

 Engineering and Study of Flight

But probably the most brilliant thing about Leo  was his ability to both observe and really meticulously record — in words and in beautiful illustrations — the natural world. These two skills combined in one of his greatest scientific passions, his study of flight. He observed all kinds of different birds, analyzing their muscles and how their feathers functioned. He did dissect them and record what he saw, but he also was known to just buy caged birds and let them loose.

Then he began to think, ‘If a bird can fly, then maybe a human can, too.’ This was a possibility that held particular fascination for Leonardo. He captured all of his designs and observations in notebooks which he often organized by subject in volumes known as codices. In the early 1500s, he put together one all about flight called the ‘Codex on the Flight of Birds’. It’s over 35,000 words and contains 500 sketches relating to bird flight, gravitational theory, balance, wing design, the properties of air, and his famous flying machine ideas.

He invented the first parachute and designed a flying machine known as the ornithopter, a contraption with manually powered wings that, while kind of dangerous, impractical and totally zany-looking, would later prove to actually work.  He was the first to ponder the concept of the force of lift, which enables objects to fly.  Like many great scientists, he was wrong a lot. Like, at first he believed that high-pressure, high-density air formed under a wing in flight and that exerted an upward force.  BUT years later, after more observation and experimentation, he correctly concluded that lift is created because the pressure on the top of the wing as air flows over it is less than the pressure underneath it.

This, of course, all hundreds of years before the world would see any kind of progress toward an actual flying machine; but Leo planted a seed of possibility and many of his inkling concepts having to do with aerodynamics, wing design, and gravity would be re-visited in the early twentieth century's airplane engineering boom.

As an architect and engineer, Leo also flexed his inventor's imagination and proposed building a 240-meter bridge across the Gulf of Istanbul. Unfortunately as with many of his other innovative ideas, other career engineers at the time shot the project down, saying he was out of his gourd to think a bridge that big could work. BUT in 2001, a Norwegian artist built a smaller scale version of Leo's bridge and found that it held just fine. Now plans are in the works to construct the real thing back in Istanbul. Take that, haterz!

Leo was also intrigued by all forms of water, be they ice, liquid, or steam. He drew up plans for different kinds of waterwheels, a steam powered cannon, a humidity measuring device, and various machines that could run off the power of flowing water. He also drafted early designs for underwater breathing devices like the iconic diving hood and mask, and different diving bell designs, as well as the first life preservers and dredges for digging harbors.

Leonardo might have been the greatest inventor the world has ever or will ever know, but virtually all of his inventions were either too complicated for the technology of the time or too expensive to attempt without a wealthy patron. All this flitting around to different disciplines frustrated some of his artist cronies, who saw him as a brilliant but flighty procrastinator, too easily distracted by his scientific interests when he should've been out there cranking out more masterpiece paintings. But none of Leo's pursuits combined his passion for both art and science better than his pioneering study of anatomy —perhaps his greatest scientific contribution.


He dissected over thirty human corpses —much to the chagrin of the Church —and his wonder and admiration for the human body is obvious in his drawings and detailed notes. He sketched lavishly detailed renderings of muscles, tendons, nerves, bones, skulls, and hearts. Every sweep of muscle, cage of bone, or tangle of vein is a revelatory masterpiece. 

And he didn't just draw what he saw —he experimented. He pulled and prodded, tugged at muscles to see what happened. He injected organs with wax to make plaster casts of them and observed their structure to see how they work together. He was figuring out staff no one knew at the time —for example, suggesting that arteries clog over time, creating a health risk.

In his last major dissection campaign Leonardo tackled the heart, creating a specific Codex about it. In one study he injected an ox heart with molten wax, cast a glass model from the wax mold, and pumped it full of liquid to observe how the valves opened and closed. What he learned about the function of these valves was revelatory and fundamental to the way the heart works. But of course because his research was never published it wasn't until the twentieth century that cardiologists got around to figuring this out and when they did, they confirmed that Leo was absolutely right about the shape and function of these valves. In fact his detailed accounts of the mitral valve --which connects the left atrium of the heart with the left ventricle --have recently been re-analyzed by modern cardiologists, inspiring ideas on how to restore the natural opening and closing of damaged valves.

Even with today's technology, physicians are still learning from da Vinci's five-hundred-year-old observations!

Leo intended to publish his anatomical studies but for reasons we're still not sure of, this never happened during his lifetime. Instead, his collection of drawings was kept private for decades until a bound volume of some six hundred of his sketches mysteriously appeared in Britain in the late 1600s. Many believe that if his anatomical collections had been published in his lifetime, Leonardo would have been hailed as one of the key founders of anatomy, instead of only a footnote.

Like many of the Great Minds we've learned about here on SciShow, Leonardo was an interdisciplinary genius whose contributions to science weren't recognized until long after his death. But there is a lot that we can still learn from him. The integration of disciplines; the power of observation and recording; the recognition that Nature can be inherently beautiful and operates as an interdependent web that connects all systems and all living things -- Leonardo was a genius because he knew this stuff five hundred years ago and some of us are still learning it.


Thanks for watching. This SciShow Infusion was filmed with support from, a leading provider of digital spoken audio information and entertainment on the internet -- kinda like SciShow, but without the pictures. has over 150,000 titles including books on anatomy, flying, and da Vinci himself. If you'd like to go try for yourself, go to Audible dot com slash SciShow to download a free audiobook.

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