Leonardo joined art with engineering

Leonardo da Vinci’s remarkable capacity for careful observation made him an astonishing artist and a brilliant scientist. He was able to compare the speed of a bird’s wing movement downwards and upwards. He noticed the differences between arteries carrying blood from the heart and the veins bringing the blood back, so as to draw accurate models of the human circulatory system. His portrait paintings were groundbreaking because Leonardo was the first to show accurate musculature in the face and neck.

Beyond applying his artist’s perceptual capabilities to scientific topics, Leonardo took on artistic and engineering challenges that built on his knowledge of geology, weather, hydrology, botany and much more. Leonardo’s natural state of mind was to integrate art, design, engineering and science. That integrative spirit inspired other legendary artist-scientists, such as John James Audubon, Louis Pasteur, Ada Lovelace and Buckminster Fuller.

‘The heart and the circulation.’ Leonardo da Vinci
However, in the 20th century, scholars began focusing on specialties, fragmenting academic disciplines. More recently, though, researchers are rethinking that approach, drawing attention to the value of bridging disciplines to inspire discovery and innovation.

At a 2018 meeting that I organized for the National Academy of Sciences, a diverse group of academics talked about examples of how scholars of art, design, engineering and science can work together for mutual benefit, as Leonardo found in his day. There are several good starting points for those who want to understand, teach and benefit from an integrative approach.

Arts training helps scientists excel

Audubon’s depiction of Carolina parakeets. New-York Historical Society
Leonardo’s celebrated perceptual skills made him a compelling artist. They also improved his science, enabling him to draw accurate representations of water swirling around objects and the movements of clouds. This tradition is apparent in Audubon’s bird paintings and the anthropology drawings of Mary Leakey.

Medical professionals may also find that training in the visual arts can help them in their jobs. For instance, after dermatologists were asked to study museum paintings they had improved their capacity to spot and describe features in skin lesions. Art training also improves clinician skills such as patient examination and reading medical images.

Similarly, musically trained doctors are better at hearing the nuances in heartbeats when they use their stethoscopes. Nursing students who got musical training were able to more accurately identify sounds from patients’ stomachs, hearts and lungs.

Louis Pasteur’s training in making portraits probably helped him understand chirality, the mechanism by which how molecules can take left-handed and right-handed forms.

Sociologist of science Robert Root-Bernstein, who has long researched the sources of extreme success in science, studied the avocations of Nobel Prize winners. He found them to be polymaths who were far more proficient in producing art, sculpture, music, literature, poetry, theater and other creative activities than other prominent researchers or the general public.

Artistic innovation challenges scientists

Some creative ideas can’t be executed without science. For instance, engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg wanted to enable audio recordings to be digitally recorded in a compact way that would allow songs to be transmitted over slow communications lines. He developed the hugely successful mp3 audio format, whose compressed data formats enabled the digital music revolution, while at the same time revolutionizing computing algorithms research.