One Renaissance man discussed the life of another at a Trumbull College Master’s Tea on Monday afternoon.
Bülent Atalay — a theoretical physicist, author and artist — explored the work of artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci before a Trumbull master’s house audience of more than 30. Da Vinci’s combination of science and art in his work is unique and places him in the category of “transformative genius,” Atalay argued.
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Atalay’s relationship with da Vinci began at age 8, when he became interested in da Vinci’s belief that “the eyes are the window to the soul,” Atalay said. This curiosity led to an incident in which he poked holes through the portraits in his father’s office, which Atalay called “an ignominious beginning to my art career.”
Fascinated as a child by both art and astrophysics, Atalay said he used to draw inspiration from English mathematician and author Charles Lutwidge Dawson. Dawson is better known as Lewis Carroll, who himself found time to write “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” while drafting treatises on abstract algebra.
Atalay listed da Vinci in his discussion of a number of individuals throughout history who have made monumental and immortal contributions to humanity. In that group, Atalay placed da Vinci alongside Ludwig van Beethoven, Michelangelo and Albert Einstein.
Da Vinci is unique among these, however, for his unprecedented and successful fusion of the scientific and artistic disciplines, Atalay said.
Da Vinci’s diverse skill set led him to incorporate mathematic ideas into his artwork. A mechanical engineer early in life, da Vinci also used the concept of the golden mean — a mathematical ratio believed to be particularly aesthetically pleasing — and formed logarithmic spirals out of curls in the hair of his subjects.
An extraordinary number of da Vinci’s sketches prefigured later inventions and scientific developments such as robotics, the helicopter, the parachute, the refracting telescope, the law of constant acceleration and perhaps even the Darwinian theory of evolution, Atalay said.
“If Leonardo had any faculty that we don’t,” Atalay said, “it was preternatural vision.”
The talk, which received acclaim from several in the audience, prompted questions about the nature of genius from Berrak Kocaoglu ’10.
“He’s talking about patterns that are almost innate in our understanding of them,” said Kocaoglu, a biomedical engineering major with an interest in neuroscience. “So he raised a lot of good points about where geniuses come from, and if they have a genetic basis.”
Elizabeth Peng ’12 praised Atalay’s simultaneous treatment of da Vinci’s artistic and scientific talents.
“I’m glad that both topics were discussed in the talk,” Peng said. “I think both areas have a lot to gain from each other.”
Atalay is a professor of physics at the University of Mary Washington. His second book, “Leonardo’s Universe: The Renaissance World of Leonardo da Vinci,” was published in 2008 by National Geographic Books.