It would be a cliché to describe Leonardo da Vinci as a man in the future. But in the case of classical Renaissance polymath, it may be one of the cliches that is firmly rooted in truth. In fact, that root has only recently grown stronger with the invention of the triangle that Leonardo sketched in one of his notebooks, the Codex Arundel (c. 1478-1518). The triangle, like New York Time‘ William J. Broad wrote, had “a jug side by side and, flowing from its spout, a series of circles forming the slanted side of the triangle”. This description sounds simple, but it reveals that Leonardo came close to understanding the law of gravitation before Galileo, and long before Newton.
This finding is the work of Morteza Gharib, a professor of aeronautics at the California Institute of Technology. Captivated by this sketch, he “used a computer program to flip the triangle and the adjacent writing area backwards,” which clarified what Leonardo was trying to do.
The diagram turns out “to divide the effects of gravity into two parts which reveal aspects of nature that are usually hidden.” The first part is the “natural downward pull” of gravity; the second is the movement of the jug itself along the lines. That Leonardo drew “the contents of the pitcher falling lower and lower” implies his understanding that “gravity is a constant force producing a steady acceleration.”
Together with co-authors Chris Roh and Flavio Noca, Gharib has published a paper on “Leonardo da Vinci’s Visualization of Gravity as a Form of Acceleration” in this month’s issue Leonardo —an aptly named journal in this case, though less dedicated to the study of Leonardo the man than to the intersection of art and science he occupied. As Gharib and others see it, Leonardo was “much more than an artist and maintains that his fame as a pioneering scientist could skyrocket if more technically knowledgeable experts delved into the Arundel Codex and other sources” — the kind of expert who could figure that out, with his jug and triangle, Leonardo was able to determine the strength of the gravitational pull with about 97 percent accuracy. Which makes us wonder: What else about the nature of reality does he have to work on in the margins of his notebook?
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastst about the city, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter book about cities, book The City Without a State: A Journey through 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarsall or on Facebook.