Leonardo da Vinci and the Power of Ignorance

In his fine short Leonardo da Vinci: A Life, for Penguin’s Penguin Lives series, Sherwin Nuland wonders if there are times when good scientists or entire disciplines, psychology among them, sound idiotic in their speculations because the empirical underpinnings of their fields are simply not yet in place.

[Leonardo] has been criticized, now and in his own time, for finishing so little of what he started. And yet, how could it have been otherwise, at least in the areas of his scientific work? The probings of his mind had gone well beyond the supporting knowledge and technology of his era. Had much more been available, it would certainly have released his genius to fly as far in reality as it did in his conjectures and fantasies. Kenneth Keele, the foremost authority on Leonardo’s anatomical studies, once sent me a paragraph extracted from a letter to a mutual friend, in which he described his own feelings about these matters, aroused while he was working on some of Leonardo’s manuscripts:

At every page I am fascinated by his intelligent questions and answers. But I find myself realizing that however intelligent, however full of instinctive weight the questions are, when the supporting base of knowledge is not there the answers are bound to contain errors.  This makes my tale inevitably one tinged with sadness; and the more Leonardo struggles within his chains of ignorance the sadder it becomes. Especially is this so because though he breaks his fetters in many places he never escapes from them. I wonder if in a number of fields (I would cite sociology, psychology, thanatology) we are not in a rather similarly sad state today with the fetters being no less powerful for being unknown to us, even unfelt.

Sociology, psychology, thanatology; I would add much of genetics to that list as well. I would offer too that the proper response is not to speculate, but to do so, and use the speculation to push both theory and experiment, as Darwin did so long ago with coral reefs and then species.

Note 03/04/14, 1:38pm EST: Fixed several dictation-typos (dictos?) I failed to catch earlier; hazards of posting while kid-wrangling. Apologies for any confusion to earlier readers.