Category Archives: Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci loves STEAM and You Should, Too

April 15 not only usually marks Tax Day, it also is the birthday of one of history’s great inventors: Leonardo da Vinci.

A pioneer in many fields, Leonardo da Vinci is a great lens through which to view a popular debate — is STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) or STEAM (those emphases with the inclusion of arts) the more important emphasis in school?

If da Vinci’s status as not only a great painter but also as a polymath and the grandfather of paleontology along with a dozen other accomplishments. He reiterated this feeling in a famous quote: “Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses – especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”

Wellesley College did a study and found a double-digit percentage decline in humanities enrollment and 8 percent decline in social sciences next to a nearly 30 percent jump in math and sciences. But they also found that interdisciplinary courses enrollments went up 18 percent.

When asked what many students regret, Ann Velenchik, the dean of academic affairs there said: “I wouldn’t say it was students’ biggest regret, but when they looked at their academic programs, they wished they had done more arts and humanities.”

In fact, Scientific American reported that interdisciplinary scientists are far more likely to become Nobel Laureates than their more focused counterparts. In fact, Laureate scientists are “seventeen times likelier than the average scientist to be a painter, twelve times as likely to be a poet, and four times as likely to be a musician.”

Today’s STEM leaders feel the same. Ben Shneiderman, University of Maryland, College Park professor and leading researcher in human-computer interaction said: “Leonardo da Vinci combined art and science and aesthetics and engineering, that kind of unity is needed once again.”

If you agree, find out more about supporting STEAM education either through supporting a local STEAM nonprofit like Uplift D.C. or through exposing kids to diverse stories of people in STE(A)M fields, whether a small book like mine, Edge of Yesterday with an interactive website, or a big motion picture like Hidden Figures.

Just remember Leonardo’s words: “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”

STEM Friday

Stalking Leonardo in America

On the hunt for Leonardo da Vinci ever since starting on the novelization of my time travel novel, but it seems, instead, he’s been stalking me.

The genius is very much alive. A few of the most notable Leo sightings, up-close-and-personal. The Da Vinci Machines exhibit, currently on display in Bradenton, Florida. Artisans from Florence, Italy, have constructed life-sized models of a series of Leonardo’s inventions found in his writings and jottings and sketches found in more than 13,000-known pages of Leonardo’s codices (definition: notebooks; singular, codex. From the Latin. Think Renaissance blog). There are an additional 20,000 or so pages from codices that scholars suspect lay hidden and molding in unsuspecting people’s attics and musty shoe boxes throughout Europe.

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Da Vinci Museums Exhibit

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Da Vinci’s glider

Here is material evidence of Leonardo’s genius in plain sight for the throngs of kids, teachers and adults visiting the exhibition. A creative thinker who could design a modern tank from observing turtles, whose glider emerged from hundreds of hours watching and sketching hawks in flight, the first working robot, and myriad seemingly modern inventions–all from the mind of a 15th-century man.

Of course, there is another, perhaps more famous side to Leonardo: his art. Which took me to Williamsburg, Virginia, recently, to see an exhibition, “Leonardo da Vinci and the Idea of Beauty,” at the Muscarelle Museum of Art on the campus of William and Mary. While, still today, the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper get most of the press, observing the master’s drawing skills at close hand is a thrill.

Leonardo and Beauty

Leonardo and the Idea of Beauty

I felt the hand of the artist on my shoulder as I stepped up to each new piece on display. On display: attributes of left-handedness — shadowing and drawing lines diagonally from up left to down right to avoid smudging and see the trajectory of each line — that make him unique among Renaissance masters. To breathe in the antiquity emanating from these 500-year-old papers and parchments. To feel the aura of the artist in the room, looking out from the shadows and into my eyes even as my eyes took him in.

In the introduction to the exhibition, in a book of the same title, Dr. Aaron H. De Groft, the museum’s director and CEO, writes, “Leonardo’s notebooks are filled with quick short notes on what he saw, how he felt, things to remember to do and many other pronouncements, statements, and fully worked out thoughts…and so much of it was illustrated. We see him living his life literally day by day and week by week documented on the page in many ways like the modern day equivalents of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. […]…he wrote in one of his last recorded lines, ‘I must go now…because the soup is getting cold.'”

How  fitting to see this inveterate doodler through the eyes of twenty-first century technology. And how like Charley, the protagonist of Out of Time, to want to record what she sees, things to remember and the many other pronouncements of her own curious, creative and inventive mind in a blog and on social media.

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Charley’s Notebooks: Tweet Storytelling Out of Time

Next stop on my quest to discover Leonardo in America? The Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, where Salvador Dali draws on the inspiration of Freud’s meanderings on the great Renaissance master to celebrate “Where Minds, Machines and Masterpieces Meet.”

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Where Minds, Machines and Masterpieces Meet.

Seeing yet another side of Leonardo’s genius up-close-and-personal? Can’t wait!

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Mona and me

Asian Gerbils Carry Black Plague to Europe

Smoking gun: Asian gerbils, not European rats, caused the plague.

Uffizzi plague victims

Roman-era Plague Victims Photo: Maurizio Degl’Innocenti/EPA, via Landov

No doubt if such news had appeared in the broadsheets of, say, 14th century Italy (and did the have anything even remotely resembling a newspaper for informing citizens in those largely illiterate days?), trade with Asia would have been banned, and the traders themselves shipped back to their home port.

Today, it’s forensic archeology informing history–and our understanding of the progress of civilization. Medical detectives sniffing into the corners of history and civilization to determine how diseases start, why they spread, and how tree rings offer the smoking gun tracking shifts in climate.

You may have guessed by now that the true purpose of this blog, under the guise of Leonardo’s fabulous and inventive mind (so emulated by the heroine of Out of Time, Charley) is to explore what’s on my own mind. What’s got me thinking right now? Would I might have known–way back in the ancient history of my formative years–that biology + archeology + anthropology + history = a way to figure out how disease spreads through history and affects the story of the world, how different my own history might be!

What triggers this revisionist thinking of career potential from my younger self? I recently ran across a story of archeologists digging up a mass grave containing human remains more than 1,500 years old under the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy–the beautiful museum where some of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpieces are on permanent display–these skeletons now thought to be victims  of an early plague.

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Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Amid growing national concern about the trickle of qualified candidates to fill a growing number of jobs in technical fields requiring strong skills in science, math and engineering, the question is increasingly important: how to entice young people into pursuing STEM careers that may not crop up in the normal course of Middle School Career Day? We live in times where how we define work, and what occupations are available, are in vast flux. The doctor-lawyer-teacher professional triad is still viable, but the world is changing. Doctors are not the only health workers. Law is narrowing for newly-minted JDs. Teachers are not revered, much less adequately compensated.

The careers of the future open up vastly different opportunities for young people today–and exposure to those possibilities can open vistas and ignite curiosity and the imagination.

As usual, Leonardo da Vinci’s example, a passion for learning and seeing in new ways–leads us to new insight. He let his nose–and eyes and chalk–lead in his passion to understand the world around him. His fascination with human anatomy led him to grave robbing and even using the underground morgues in the Vatican itself to gain access to skeletons that would allow him to study human skeletal structures and the undergirding of the face that allowed him to draw and paint such lifelike, living humans in those masterpieces that come down to us today. In fact, had Leo known of the destruction beneath a gallery that displayed his masterpieces, he might have even been tempted to exhume the bodies himself, in his constant search to portray the human form in all its guises.

There was also the fascination with life, death, age, youth and nature–so present in Leonardo’s age and, paradoxically, so remote and isolated in our own. The contrast between beauty and death is one that captured Leonardo’s attention throughout his prolific career and revealed itself in his painting, sketching and sculpture.

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Of course, in 1492 and beyond, Europeans were not the only victims of disease-carrying ships. Historians have documented the link between Europeans arriving in the New World and the subsequent spreading of disease among Native American populations, peoples who had no immunity to diseases carried by their conquerors, and the germs they carried with them. But until fairly recently, understanding how conquest went viral–and often deadly–was not a meme of history.

Could modern medicine, with its vaccines, antibiotics and advanced treatments for infectious disease–if known back in the days when barbers were surgeons–have eradicated the Black Death and changed history? Do we even know what the picture might have looked like if millions of lives that were erased due to plague, cholera, and other epidemics, had been controlled by better sanitation, isolation against the spread of disease and contemporary public health practices had been available back in the day?

Not to say we don’t have uncontrollable scourges today taking lives, Ebola being only the latest example. But today a new form of virus, proving just as infectious, is carried through ether of the World Wide Web and delivered electronically into our homes. As yet, the consequences of computer viruses are still being tested–ranging from terrorists recruiting members with their chilling videos extolling killing in the name of God, to warnings about spying from supposedly preventive and benevolent sources such as the US National Security Agency. Will the spread of such viruses will impact our future story for good or ill? History–and future digital forensic anthropologists–may someday uncover evidence that these have alternatively helped or hurt our world.

Had such an example of sleuthing research and discovery been available to me in my own formative years, I might have honed my love of writing, my aptitude for explaining science through story to then dive into biology, anatomy, environmental science, medical history and tracking the global trail of infectious disease to pursue a much different, but highly satisfying career path.

Growing up, my daughter had a pet gerbil. Scribbles seemed innocent enough–and certainly no great threat to the health of our family, except when it came to cleaning his cage, a task which would have been neglected completely were it not for the smell, and a good bit of nagging on the part of the parents. [So much for children promising to take responsibility!] A gerbil in the wild, stealing on a sailing ship for a three week journey in less-than-optimal conditions is undoubtedly a different beast than his domestic ancestors in the neighborhood pet store.

Who knew? And what young person today, cleaning her gerbil’s cage and wondering about her pet’s family history, might awaken a new interest in how such things work that takes her out of the classroom, into the lab, and onto the road of discovery in other yet-to-be-imagined ways?

Smoking guns may define the history of our past. But, for now, my bet is on the gerbil to sniff out the future history of health.

Et tu, Scribbles?

Out of Time to be showcased on TV talk show “Think About It”

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Taping for “Think About It” to air Dec. 9 at 10 pm, Ch. 16 Montgomery Cable TV and online http://mmctv.org/video.html

Had a blast doing a half-hour interview with Sylvia Henderson, host of “Talk About It’, a biweekly community affairs program on MMCTV, here in Montgomery County, Maryland. We talked about the STEM to STEAM to MASTERY link that is becoming fundamental to student learning in K-12 education. MASTERY, here, includes learning across multiple disciplines, but with purpose: math, arts, science, technology, engineering, reflection (think social and emotional learning!)–for me, this happens through the “yarns of storytelling.”

In the interview, Sylvia asked me how to make that accessible to young people who might not otherwise be drawn to science, technology, engineering or math–the four pillars of STEM learning. The theory behind “Out of Time” in its many incarnations–novel, screenplay, Tweet storytelling adventure and flipped learning platform–is that young people can explore through whatever their own personal passions are and be drawn into the world of the Renaissance learner to explore further.Davinci_formula

In an “Aha!” moment, Sylvia revealed that, while she is not necessarily a “math person” (not sure there is such a thing, by the way!), she loves building dollhouses–scale models of life-sized homes. To create them, she uses architectural design principles based on mathematics: fractions, geometry, perspective and more.

Artists, musicians and craftspeople all employ STEM skills in their play–thus STEM becomes STEAM as arts integrates nicely into the equation.

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Sylvia is now an experienced time traveler. Shown here wearing Out of Time cap.

What’s your passion? Share with us in comments below how you get from STEM to STEAM to MASTERY and beyond.

And watch “Out of Time” interview here, or on Channel 16 on Montgomery Cable TV on Monday, December 8 at 10 p.m.: http://mmctv.org/video.html – scroll down to “Talk About It” and click on the link with my name, Robin Stevens Payes.

Leo

OOT_music_icon[1]In the time travel adventure story Out of Time, our heroine Charley plays violin–taught and encouraged by her professional violinist mom, Gwen. Charley and Gwen even compose what Charley calls a “sound poem” together–the song “Out of Time” that ends up connecting mother and daughter across centuries.  Practicing the violin is not Charley’s favorite thing to do: Gwen has to nag alot. What Charley really wants to concentrate on building Leonardo da Vinci’s plans for a time machine to win the school science fair.

But the music proves key to time travel–an energy that knows no bounds–in ways neither mother nor daughter would ever have guessed. The song gives the story an energy all its own. But Out of Time needed a real melody, not just ClonesofClones-31the tune in my imagination! I had long begged my musician son Ben (a rocker and lead singer for Clones of Clones) to compose the theme song. Now, after much doing, Ben’s obliged, with “Leo, ” a sweet ballad that gives air to Charley’s longing to find her own time and place, no matter what her parents or anyone else thinks is right for her.

Give a listen! Let us know in comments what you think.

Pitch Week Coda: Finding Inspiration for Rebirth

LiveFuller_webRI am in rustic Rochester, Vermont, a contestant in Pitch Week II. I am deep in the throes of this midsummer nights competition–in the running for the publishing trifecta of a book deal, agent and publicist.

As part of the contest, I am presenting my vision for a rebirth of learning based on the resonance of my story Out of Time–a plan for every child to achieve his fullest potential. A renewal in modern society of transdicisplinary learning has the potential to spawn the same impulse towards innovation, illumination and flowering of genius that characterized the Renaissance: Live Fuller.

The gist: a revival of Renaissance/Humanist learning and discovery based on modern science of how children learn, grow and thrive offers a chance for every child to discover, nurture and be supported in finding her own source of genius.

I contend that stories have the power to evoke such potential for self-discovery and inspire children to find and explore their unique talents and potential to contribute to the world. And Out of Time, in all its forms–novel, screenplay, interactive storytelling, and digital learning tool–can be the portal.

During the course of the week-long publishing competition, I have the great good fortune of staying in the Ralph Ellison room at the When Words Count Retreat. Of course, Ellison work was influential during the Harlem Renaissance—a 20th century flowering of thoughts and ideas for a particular community long oppressed. Not a coincidence, as far as I’m concerned.

As I scan the works of the author of The Invisible Man, I read the back book jacket of his collected stories, Flying Home.

I find his words evocative:

“Back in the thirties, when I was a music student in the South, I was moved to great agonies of empathy by three novels. One of these was Wuthering Heights, another was Jude the Obscure and the other was Crime and Punishment. While I was reading these works I felt such a compelling identification with their respective heroes that I literally suffered through their every trial and exalted in their every triumph. . . . I missed none of the bolder actions and there are still memory traces of them in my throat which were put there by the poignant and tragic developments of these fictions. . . . And the fact that they could so take me out of myself and transport me to a more intense world of feeling and acting, yes, and thinking, intrigued me more than I realized at the time.”

At its best, reading—and fiction in particular—has this magical power to move us to “great agonies of empathy.” And what better to teach our children—in our world of widening divisions and fissions on a global scale—than the pleasurable agony of knowing we all share the same dreams and fears, the same flesh and blood, and the same capacity to draw together through our shared experiences?

Can story create resonance that allows children to jump into learning and find that same source of inspiration? Once that seed is planted, can we, as a society, water it, nurture it into full flower, and then let it grow?

It is to this idea that I dedicate Out of Time: that we all embrace the goal to “live fuller”, to wake up to a world in dire need of revival. More than any time in recent memory, today’s complex and interconnected world requires a Renaissance of ideas, inspiration, creativity and problem solving.

And it is the coming generations that will be charged with undertaking that renewal–or witness our demise.

Now is the moment to plant the seeds of empathy, watch them take root, and strengthen our capacity to draw together in mutual understanding and compassion for ourselves and others with all our strengths and foibles.

Can a story Out of Time spark a movement?

When Time Is Unevenly Distributed

“The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.” ~William Gibson

Smithsonian Future Is Here

Last weekend, I had the gorgeous, splendiferous, mind-bending opportunity to attend Smithsonian magazine’s “The Future is Here” Festival. Listening to the newest news on scientific discovery, exploration and art by some of today’s Superheroes of History (that is, if time were “evenly” distributed – since I’m safely writing this a week past the event, we can safely say that future is now history by today’s standards of time-keeping), we 300+ participants were regaled with the imperative to record human stories to be sent into deep-space messages; exoplanet exploration and the development of a “star shield” to better “see” via the Kepler telescope the presence and distinctive energetic signatures of potential Earth-like orbs in galaxies far-far away; Antarctic cosmologists’ detection of the earliest signature of the Big Bang; and even some of the ethics of re-birthing extinct species that once graced our own home planet. There were writers who have regaled the earth with science fiction that has been the inspiration for many a scientist who used the fiction as a jumping-off point for her own explorations of the universe. Mind blowing, or as my very creative, Argentine-artist friend Rosana Azar would say, “Blow-minding!”

Tweeting the event, Screen Shot 2014-05-25 at 8.40.11 AMalong with a cadre of avid live conference bloggers, both Charley and I (Robin) were honored to have our tweets quoted in Smithsonian’s live reporting of the event:

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Loved this “capture” by fellow microblogger Summer Ash, quoting science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, on the one stunning photograph from space that could conceivably justify any investment our little exurban planet might put into exploring the multiverse:

Perhaps the most “blow-minding” exhibition of the day was the jet-powered Rocket Man flight: 58 seconds of a young man flying under jet-pack propulsion wearing a suitably superhero-like red-and-white suit and protected by nothing more than a helmet.

Wonder what Leonardo da Vinci would make of this–or wait, did he anticipate it 500 years ago?

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