Today, we watch as myth drives science. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
When I was in the army, I
met an engineer who did sculpture. One day, he did
the most lovely little rendering of Zeus coming to
Leda in the form of a swan. When I admired it, he
gave it to me. It was made of unfired clay, and it
did not last.
But the powerful imagery of the myth did last. It
stayed with me. That's why I'm so struck by another
rendering of Leda, which has also been lost. It's
the one Leonardo da Vinci painted in 1504. While
the painting's lost, all kinds of preliminary
sketches remain. Other artists did versions of
Leonardo's Leda. We have a good idea what it looked
Two major forces at work in Leonardo's life merge
in the painting. One is anatomy, particularly the
anatomy of reproduction. The other's the world of
living plants and water. Leda came before most of
Leonardo's dissections of animal and human
reproductive systems. It followed much of his work
on water and plant life.
Art historians Kenneth Clark and Carlo Pedretti
both seem haunted by the lost Leda painting. Maybe
it's that blank region in a mosaic. A space richly
hinted at by the lush tiles around it -- an absence
teasing our minds all the more because of those
When Pedretti looks at Leonardo's earlier sketches
of plants and water he sees both realism and
surrealism. On the one hand, Leonardo was the
beginning of modern science. Vesalius, Galileo, and
Bacon soon developed his idea that we must look
directly at nature. Leonardo held all the seeds of
But the magic of Leonardo is that he recreated
everything as soon as he saw it. Coleridge once
criticized Newton for being a passive scientific
onlooker. Well, there was nothing passive about
Leonardo's observations or his Leda.
Scattered about her were eggs bursting with the
fruit of her union with swan Zeus. Fecundity was
underscored by rich foliage all around her. In
preliminary sketch after sketch, Leonardo had
studied those plants. He'd shown leaves and flowers
as you see them, but dramatized. He gives them a
vital swirling impulse.
A stream of water flowed through the Leda scene.
And in the years just before he painted her,
Leonardo began his studies of moving water. Fluid
flow scholars call Leonardo the first student of
turbulent eddies. His drawings capture that motion
so well his vision must've been stroboscopic. The
water is more than just realistic. It seems alive.
And Leonardo later went from the study of moving
water to the study of blood flow in living beings.
Element by element, the theme of life spirals
outward in a great vortex from Leda. Life springs
from the universal idea of union between god and
human. Myth mutates into truth and touches our
minds on a level too deep to be conscious. It
breathes both life and scientific truth -- into us
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds