Today’s Solutions: October 27, 2021

Visionary Fritjof Capra teams up with Leonardo da Vinci to explore the cutting edge of 21st-century science.

Jay Walljasper| November 2007 issue
You can think of inventor Leonardo da Vinci and physicist Fritjof Capra as colleagues, collab-orating on groundbreaking scientific work that shifts fundamental assumptions about how the universe works. Leonardo began the experiments in the late 15th century with his keen observations about everything from human anatomy to the patterns created by flowing water. Capra keeps the research going 500 years later by incorporating the latest findings from new fields such as quantum mechanics and systems theory.
Their conclusion is startling: The conventional belief that the universe operates like a machine is hopelessly outdated. And worse, it distorts our understanding of life on Earth and hampers efforts to heal the environment and social tensions.
Capra and Leonardo are stirring controversy now with the publication of The Science of Leonardo [excerpted here], a pointed critique of how Western science, technology and even economics misunderstand the nature of the universe. Capra, who penned the international bestseller The Tao of Physics, looks at all of Leonardo’s existing scientific work and proposes that if his findings had been more widely understood by thinkers of the Enlightenment Age—when modern science was born in the 18th century—then our society would look much different today.
The Enlightenment imposed a sharp division between what is seen as nature and what is seen as human, still central to Western culture today, which led to a dominant worldview based on social and ecological exploitation. Capra argues that the profound inquiry carried out by Leonardo in his journals and drawings, provides us with a better way to see the world.
This is sure to be disputed by professors and researchers in white lab coats from Tokyo to Oxford to Silicon Valley. Yet neither Capra nor Leonardo centuries earlier was looking for an intellectual brawl when they formulated their ideas. They are both gentle souls whose agile minds, reflective inclinations and tireless, rigorous investigations have convinced them there’s more to our universe than modern science lets on.
While Leonardo da Vinci predates Galileo, Francis Bacon and the birth of the scientific method by at least a century, Austrian-born Fritjof Capra was steeped in empirical orthodoxy as a student in the 1960s. He earned a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of Vienna, and was doing post-doctoral work at the University of Paris when something awakened in him. “I was a research physicist by day,” he remembers, “and sort of a hippie by night. I was hanging out with artists, writers and filmmakers, and many of them were interested in Eastern mysticism. That struck me as a whole new way to understand the world.”
Capra began to explore links between the teachings of Eastern philosophy and recent discoveries in quantum physics. His research took him to a teaching position at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he worked with the pioneer of systems thinking, Gregory Bateson. In 1975, Capra published his findings as The Tao of Physics, which became an international bestseller that has been translated into 22 languages.
His next book was The Turning Point, a broader look at the new revolution underway in biology, medicine, psychology and economics as people embrace a new paradigm that goes beyond the conventional view that nature and human affairs operate according to rigid rules. With his brother Bernt, a Hollywood filmmaker, he turned the book into the feature film Mindwalk.
Throughout his work—which includes coauthoring the first authoritative guide to Green politics, publishing business and management books, and founding the Center for Ecoliteracy to promote ecological education in schools—Capra has continuously challenged the mechanistic mindset of our culture, which is “based on the view of the world as a machine, consisting of separate building blocks; on the corresponding view of the human body as a machine (in the biomedical model)… and on the belief in economics and politics that all problems have technological solutions.”
He argues that these assumptions have been challenged by recent global economic and ecological crises.
“As our sciences and technologies become increasingly narrow in their focus, unable to understand the problems of our time from an interdisciplinary perspective, and dominated by corporations with little interest in the well-being of humanity,” Capra declares, “what we need today is exactly the kind of science Leonardo da Vinci anticipated and outlined 500 years ago.”
Although Capra never studied Leon-ardo’s scientific work until seeing an exhibit of his drawings at London’s Buckingham Palace a decade ago, he sees The Science of Leonardo as the culmination of his own career, which has been dedicated to exploring new ideas in science.
Although his subject has been dead for centuries, Capra places Leonardo at the cutting edge of modern science as one of the first in a line of “systems thinkers” that includes the German poet and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Nobel-winning physicist Werner Heisenberg, Gregory Bateson, and artist Andy Goldsworthy. He describes systems thinking as “connecting the dots,” which Leonardo masterfully did in his writings, diagrams and art.
Leonardo has an important message for our time, Capra says: “We urgently need a science that recognizes the fundamental interdependence of all phenomena, acknowledges nature as a mentor and model and reconnects us with the living world.”
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