Mainichi Shimbun

June 18, 2006


Mona Lisa to Suugaku
by Bulent Atalay

Translated by Ryuji Takaki & Nobuo Sayanagi
Publisher: Kagaku-Dojin, Editor: Takahiro Kato



"An Extensive and Erudite Monologue
Spanning Time and Space"

Reviewed by Yoichiro Murakami

A modern fairy tale about da Vinci has apparently become a tremendous hit as a novel and film.  I tend to turn my back to such temporary crazes and have no intention to read or see the fairy tale.  However, while this particular book’s subject is Leonardo, it has absolutely nothing to do with the prevailing catchpenny trend.

     Leonardo is sometimes called the “versatile genius”.  He is best known as an artist, but the number of paintings that he left behind is very few (which nonetheless include The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa).  He was primarily a freelance craftsman (i.e. he wasn’t affiliated to any guilds), and engaged in the designing and construction of civil engineering works and other architecture under a number of patrons.  One could say that he was a person that was not considered an “intellectual” during his time, but from that position he keenly observed nature and incorporated into his engineering the knowledge he single-handedly derived from nature.  The areas he covered included disciplines now known as anatomy, fluid dynamics, classic mechanics, and mathematics, and the artifacts he conceived are said to include the bicycle and submarine.  This book provides an overview of his diverse work from two viewpoints, science and art.

     C. P. Snow once warned of the disparity between two cultures (the humanistic culture and scientific culture), and himself attempted to be both a scientist and novelist.  It is somewhat hard to justify Snow’s success as a writer, but the author of this book is both a physicist and artist, and moreover has been successful in both fields (part of his talent as an artist can be seen in the sketches in the book).  In that sense, he is the ideal person for an endeavor like this book.  In modern times, where segmentalized expertise is the norm, such endeavors are difficult indeed.

     The book develops its thesis by identifying the mathematical order in nature (the pursuit of which is science) and the human expression of such an order (which is art) through several viewpoints.  This is most brilliantly illustrated in Chapter 6, “The Art of Nature”.  A very meticulous analysis of symmetries in physics and spirals in biology is conducted using concepts such as the divine ratio (a.k.a. the golden ratio) and Fibonacci series, describing not only the way the stems and branches of plants grow, but even also aesthetics in the human body and face.  While there is an undeniable Western bias to the analysis, the author doesn’t forget to express his interest in Japan, either.

     Endeavors similar to this book in modern times can be seen in Martin Gardner’s writings, but his emphasis is more on math and science.  This book gives an equal emphasis to art, which consequently is the biggest character and strength of this book.  In terms of artistic creations, the works of Escher and Buckminster Fuller are also frequently spotlighted in books of this genre, but this book provides a fuller analysis than its peers.

    Another characteristic of this book is its eloquent style of storytelling, describing the pyramids in Egypt in one moment and then Dali’s paintings in the next.  The extensiveness and eruditeness of the author’s knowledge of the relevant history is quite apparent.  It is almost as if a big encyclopedia has been concentrated into this one volume, making the book a very satisfying read.

     However, “science” and “art” are both genres that were established in a more recent age, thus neither the social occupation of “scientist” nor “artist” existed at the time Leonardo lived (for example, the works of an “artist” are attributed to that certain individual, but in Leonardo’s time, they were attributed to the atelier that undertook them).  Had this viewpoint been incorporated somewhere in the book, the descriptions made could have been even more “historic”.

The reviewer, Yoichiro Murakami, is the Othmer Science Professor, International Christian University, Tokyo, Japan. (The review translated into English by Nobuo Sayanagi.)