What is Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci About?

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What is art? Nature concentrated.
~ Honoré de Balzac (French novelist and playwright)

As he aged, he pursued his scientific inquiries not just to serve his art but out of a joyful instinct to fathom the profound beauties of creation. When he groped for a theory of why the sky appears blue, it was not simply to inform his paintings. His curiosity was pure, personal, and delightfully obsessive.

~ Walter Isaacson (Leonardo da Vinci — Simon & Schuster)

Preamble 🎈

O young artist, you search for a subject—everything is a subject. Your subject is yourself, your impressions, your emotions in the presence of nature
~ Eugène Delacroix 1798–1863 (“On Painting”, from Oeuvres Littéraires [1829–1863], pt. II, ch. 2)

The Short Answer

The short answer to the question, What is Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci About?—which also happens to be the title of this essay—is simply this: something really important.

The Longer Answer

The longer answer requires some explanation; that’s what the rest of this essay is all about. As they say, there is no royal road to geometry. This book by Walter Isaacson is a work of art and we will gradually peel away the layers of artistry, one layer of pastel at a time.

Of Artists and Patrons

But I would be remiss in my duty as a writer if I didn’t share how I came to find out about this book in the first place: the honor goes to an esteemed friend who is not only a brilliant thinker but also a world-class man of action. Even more significantly, in my mind anyway, is the fact that he is one of the most gracious individuals you will ever know.  This is all the more meaningful because—when viewed through the lens of context and juxtaposition—you don’t go any higher in an organization than he has. Enough said.


Look, I am merely a craftsman and an artist who just happens to paint with prose. Okay, okay, I ‘fess up: I’m really a software craftsman who loves what he does for a living, “painting” his designs (on the canvas of the compiler), one line of code at a time 👕

Frankly, though, I can make a strong case—and demonstrate it while I’m at it—that software craftsmanship is truly an art unto itself. But that would take us far afield. I do wish to add, though, that I remain mindful of how artists like me—I think of writers as artists—and also painters, sculptors, musicians (you name it), would not be around were it not for gracious and discerning patrons…

I’m immensely grateful for that.

So it is only fitting—remember how we all recently celebrated Thanksgiving?—that I give thanks for this work of art (which Isaacson’s new book Leonardo daVinci really is) and with which my friend has put me in touch!

A Guide To The Fun Which Lies Ahead 🏁

I’m afraid of losing my obscurity. Genuineness only thrives in the dark. Like celery 🌾
~ Aldous Huxley (1894 – 1963)

Pit Stops (aka Sojourns) On Our Journey

We have some ground to cover in this essay since we will be looking at a multi-layered individual—an incredible polymath if ever there was one—because the life of Leonardo da Vinci is itself a work of art 🌹

So let’s get started with a bird’s eye view of the sojourns we’ll hit during the upcoming excursion ⛷

  1. Learn How to Defy Expectations 🎪
  2. Allow Your Inner Genius to Inspire You (and then, Others) 🎈
  3. Seek Your Creative Partnership with Technology 💑
  4. Combine Theory, Experiment, and Knowledge ♨
  5. Find the Poetry in Design 🚂
  6. Find the Design in Poetry 🚀
  7. Probe the Infinite Works of Nature 🌳
  8. Simplify Your Design 🐠
  9. Make Each (Algorithmic) Step of The Journey Matter 🚶
  10. Find Unity in Marvelous Patterns 🏰

Receding Like The Distant Ship Smoke On The Horizon

Okay, so what you see above is the itinerary for the sojourns receding from us—excuse me there, I had meant to say—coming our way: So I wasn’t joking when I noted above that we have some ground to cover; not anywhere near what we had in the past couple of essays, but substantial enough, nonetheless, to warrant your packing at least some gear for the journey that lies ahead ⛰

Ready? Got that trusty rucksack slung across your shoulder? 🎒

Great, let’s start our journey with that crucial first step🚶

A Pattern Language 🎲

Brief Background

Much as I had said in the last essay, having enjoyed working in the trenches of software design and development for over two decades now—and getting a kick out of it every single day still when I wake up and launch into my work—I dream in software design patterns even when I’m awake. Is that paradoxical or what? You go figure that one out; I’ve already got a boatload of metaphysics on my hands 😴

No doubt about it: the genesis of the notion of a pattern language, inasmuch as it applies to software design—rest assured that I’ll be introducing it shortly—can be traced back to the seminal book that rocked our industry a bit over two decades ago:

Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software
(Addison Wesley) by Gamma, E., R. Helm, R. Johnson, and J. Vlissides

And the way it rocked our software industry was right up there with a tsunami, albeit a benign one; a tsunami that nourished rather than demolished on whichever shores its waves crashed. In other words, it was a rising tide—albeit a massive one—that had lifted all boats unlike any other that our industry had seen before 🌊

The Pattern Language: Annotated

Here, then, is the pattern language—note the color-coding below, starting with blackpurpleblue, and even some green making an appearance—in which I’ve cast each of the 10 pieces that make up the bulk of this essay:

  • Heading: A short description of what a given piece is about (Precisely so, yay!) 🎯
  • An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: My editorial “wisdom” (You back there, stop snickering. Now!💎
  • Related Book: Something to lend texture to the discussion (We play with word-painting) 🎨
  • Picture: A picture with which to ground the narrative in a corporeal way (This will be your ticket to the piece) 🎫
  • Quotation: A quote selected to wrap it all up into a unified whole (Big gifts often come in small packages) 🎁

In the end, I hope you will agree that there is a method to this madness… With that, let’s embark on our journey!

The Picture: Annotated

I owe you an annotated version of the picture atop this essay. This is the picture with Walter Isaacson’s book—the centerpiece of this essay—sitting (actually, standing upright) atop one of the innumerable bookshelves strewn throughout my house. I suspect that the thematic picture, which portrays a handful of mementos that I had lovingly arranged into a collage of sorts, might have come across (at least as it appears atop the essay, sans annotations) as a jumbled mess 💠

So to set the record straight, and also help you appreciate the juxtaposition, here, then is an annotated version of the same picture:

Legend to the Picture Above

Clockwise, starting from the top-left, we have:
  1. Standing erect is the book Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster) ⚓
  2. Here we’ve got painting virtuosity on display (“The Reading Room“, a prized possession) 🎨
  3. Some random books—mostly computer science—which just happened to be lying around 📕
  4. A memento from one of my trips to Chicago (USA) 🚕
  5. A memento somebody brought from their trip to Sydney (Australia) 🐫

1. Learn How to Defy Expectations 🎪

An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: Now try this on for size…  As I learned from the pages of Walter Isaacson’s eponymously named book, Leonardo da Vinci could well have, after his birth, gone on to become a notary! But guess what? Fate had more— much more—in store for da Vinci. As they say, the rest is history 💎
Related Book: The Soul of A New Machine (Back Bay Book) by Tracy Kidder🎨
This Pulitzer prize-winning book chronicles how a team came together and—defying all expectations—created a quality product, faster then anyone had imagined. Put simply, it was an amazing feat which that being accomplished!

Expect the best. Prepare for the worst. Capitalize on what comes.
~ Zig Ziglar (1928 – 2012)

2. Allow Your Inner Genius to Inspire You (and then, Others) 🎈

An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: The polymath and Renaissance Man that da Vinci was, one of his truly remarkable contributions to all that came after him—to all those who came after him— is the boundless inspiration and the lasting impact off his work💎
Related Book: Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (Pantheon) by James Gleick 🎨
This delightful book should not be missed by fans of Nobel laureate Richard Feynman! It really deserves an essay of its own. Maybe one day I will write one… Meanwhile, think of Leonardo da Vinci as the precursor to Feynman.

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A man of genius is not a man who sees more than other men do. On the contrary, it is very often found that he is absentminded and observes much less than other people. . . Why is it that the public have such an exaggerated respect for him—after he is dead? The reason is that the man of genius understands the importance of the few things he sees.
~ George Bernard Shaw 🎁

3. Seek Your Creative Partnership with Technology 💑

An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci:Isaacson, with his characteristic clarity, notes how, when he “…embarked on this book because Leonardo da Vinci is the ultimate example of the main theme of my previous biographies: how the ability to make connections across disciplines—arts and sciences, humanities and technology—is a key to innovation, imagination, and genius.” I’m not sure what else I could add to that succinct and comprehensive observation which lies at the heart of the partnership between human creativity and technology 💎
Related Book: Plato and the Nerd: The Creative Partnership of Humans and Technology (The MIT Press) by Edward Ashford Lee🎨
Let’s not beat about the bush: this book happens to be my “spark”. Period.
If Leonardo da Vinci was a wellspring of creativity, then this book has the roadmap for synthesizing the admixture of creativity and modern technology. In the brief space here, I simply cannot do justice to this gem, and how it relates to the life of Leonardo da Vinci. But not to worry. I have already done much of that in an earlier series of essays. So my job here is quite simple in that I can point you in that direction…

So, having discovered my spark—many of my regular readers likely are already on to it—I was, of course, referring to the gem which got its very own handful of essays on our blog here, the following three to be precise:

 All I can say is: go forth, explore, and find out what’s got your blogger so excited!

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The physical world was real, and the mathematics, I had become enthralled with, but not for itself, really—you know what I mean? It was fascinating, but my real heart was somewhere else. So I decided, I have to get my hands dirty, I can’t stand these abstract things. So I changed to electrical engineering, because there was something that was real. But then some few months later, I realized I’d gone too far, and that somewhere in between—that physics was the right place. So I moved around a little bit at the beginning, and ended up with the physics course.
~ Richard P. Feynman, in The Quotable Feynman (Princeton University Press)

4. Combine Theory, Experiment, and Knowledge ♨

An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: Isaacson rightly notes that Leonardo da Vinci made mighty contributions to our understanding of the scientific method. How did da Vinci do this? He did so by combining theory, experiment, and received knowledge. We  did all this asDesign nowadays. But not so back then… Yep, da Vinci sure was way ahead of his times 💎
Related Book: Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, 2nd Edition (Prentice Hall) by Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig 🎨
Before I say a single word about this stellar book, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t tell you that there is a newer edition—a third edition—available as well. I mention the second edition simply because that’s the one I happened to have read. It is the one that made me fall in love with the subject of artificial intelligence (AI). No doubt, there are other excellent books on AI, but nothing comes close to this one by Russell and Norvig.
So what does AI have to do with the life of Leonardo da Vinci? Nothing, and everything: “nothing” because not even the faintest inkling existed during the time of da Vinci resembling AI; “everything” because da Vinci blazed the path of intellectual virtuosity which shone the light on all that was to come after him, notably including algorithmic virtuosity.

16 f

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand an end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
~ William Shakespeare (The one-and-only, my implacable nemesis: the Bard) 🎁

5. Find the Poetry in Design 🚂

An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: For a lot of folks, da Vinci is the quintessential designer. Just like poetry is the essence— distillation, if you will—of prose, so was his work the essence of design: poetry in design💎

Related Book: The Essential Rumi (HarperCollins) by Jelaluddin Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks 🎨
You will find—and regular readers are already quite familiar with this the phenomenon—references to the poetry of Rumi liberally sprinkled across the essays around here. And what is it that makes Rumi’s poetry so special? It is simply this:  it is replete with intricate designs and elegant variations.

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There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money either.
~ Robert Graves 🎁

6. Find the Design in Poetry 🚀

An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: Isaacson perceptively notes how the city of Florence was becoming a hub for the discourse of literature, poetry, and humanist philosophy. And there you have it: design in poetry💎

Related Book: Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Barnes & Noble Omnibus Leatherbound Classics) by William Shakespeare🎨
The Bard—the name by which Shakespeare is fondly known—sure had a way with words. Dare I say that words never had it so good as when the Bard was using them to craft his poems and plays!

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I heard someone tried the monkeys-on-typewriters bit trying for the plays of W. Shakespeare, but all they got was the collected works of Francis Bacon.
~ Bill Hirst

7. Probe the Infinite Works of Nature 🌳

An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: When it comes to probing the infinite works of nature, there is so much that Isaacson covers so nicely that I am unsure of where to even begin… I recommend picking up a copy of the book from your local, brick-and-mortar bookstore. How about that now? 💎

Related Book: Nano Nature (Metro Books) by Richard Jones🎨
This book takes you on a spectacular journey into the realm of the invisible. I haven’t seen another one quite like it…

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I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale.
~ Marie Curie (1867-1934) 🎁

8. Simplify Your Design 🐠

An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: In so many words, Isaacson remarks how Leonardo da Vinci was the genius’ genius!  I would not argue with that, notwithstanding my longstanding appreciation and admiration of both Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman are. Read this book and be regaled in delicious details💎

Related Book: Object Design: Roles, Responsibilities, and Collaborations (Addison-Wesley Professional) by Rebecca Wirfs-Brock and Alan McKean🎨
It has been observed, and very rightly so, that it takes a genius to simplify things. Harkening back to the advice by Henry David Thoreau—to “Simplify, simplify, simplify”—this gem of a book takes you deep into the heart of software design. The preface to this book by one of my all time programming heroes (John Vlissides) alone is worth the price of this book!

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The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility.
~ Oscar Wilde (in The Importance of Being Earnest) 🎁


9. Make Each (Algorithmic) Step of The Journey Matter 🚶

An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: Although I don’t call Isaacson using the word algorithm anywhere in his book, I think that a case can be made that stepwise, methodical—think pause-and-deliberation—attacks on the problem space had a lot to do with da Vinci’s unprecedented success in a ton of disparate fields…💎

Related Book: Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions (Henry Holt and Co.) by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths🎨
The book is 100% addictive reading. Since I have already written quite a bit about it, my job here is simple in that I’ll point you in that direction… All the good stuff is  waiting there for you. Simply look for it in the fifth spot in the following essay:

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The veil of illusion cannot be lifted by a mere decision of reason, but demands the most thoroughgoing and persevering preparation consisting in the full payment of all debts to life.
~ C. G. Jung (1875-1961) 🎁

10. Find Unity in Marvelous Patterns 🏰

An Aspect of Leonardo da Vinci: Isaacson has noted in at least a few spots in his book that viewed nature as a holistic whole, and with a great deal of reverence for its unifying patterns💎

Related Book: Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software (Addison Wesley) by Gamma, E., R. Helm, R. Johnson, and J. Vlissides🎨
Not sure what I can add to all that’s already been said about the book that rocked our (software design and development) industry in a sea changing way…

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We sleep, but the loom of life never stops and the pattern which was weaving when the sun went down is weaving when it comes up tomorrow.
~ Beecher (1813-1878) 🎁

Epilogue 🎈

Aha, Ten More Pieces!

I hope you enjoyed this essay, made up as it was—the bulk of it anyway—of 10 pieces. And if you did, I’ve got good news for you: you can look forward to a set of 10 (brand) new pieces in the follow-up essay which should hit this blog next Sunday.

Pit Stops (aka Sojourns) For Our Next Journey

As for a bird’s eye view of the sojourns we’ll hit in our next excursion, this is roughly what you can expect ⛷

  1. It’s OK to be Fascinated by Math 👒
  2. Spot the Hidden Treasures 👑
  3. Rekindle Your Passion for Probing Origins 🔭
  4. Hunt for the Big, Timeless Ideas 🎻
  5. Cultivate a Deep Feel for Learning 🌊
  6. Pack Information as Densely as Possible 👜
  7. Allow Your Art to be Informed by (the Analysis of) Nature 🎃
  8. Distribute Evenly (or at Least as Evenly as Possible) 👠
  9. Should You Chance Upon a Dark Cave… 🐌
  10. Take it to the Limit 🐝
Then we swirled around each other and the thread was spun
to some Arcadian band
I would stop it from swinging like a pendulum 
Just to hold time in my hand 
And you shot me with a cannonball of history 
And long forgotten art 
I’d be turning it over as our words ran free 
I’d hold your Golden Heart 
~ Mark Knopfler (Lyrics from Golden Heart)

A Poem, Inspired By This Essay

Ann wrote it, bird by bird,
Akram read it, word by word

And here I share, county by county
All that I discovered, bounty by bounty

Come, follow me, tweet by tweet,
Wonders await you, retreat by retreat

Let’s rejoice in our friendship, song by song
Let’s gather in our unity, throng by throng

Don’t fear as we take it on, nerve by nerve
We’ll take the world on together, verve by verve

Working with passion, line-of-code by line-of-code
Our software will power the world, road by road

As chariots hug the road, curve by curve
I’ll be there for you, helping, serve by serve

Mark what I say, word for word
We are in this together, herd by herd

~ Akram Ahmad (*United We Rejoice“, yet another random poem by a writer, blogger, software craftsman, son, husband, father, brother, and friend)

* The title of this poem—with its undertones suggesting that “together we stand, divided we fall“—is inspired by the Pink Floyd song “Hey You

And, Finally…

Aasha key choatee si nuyya
(It’s but a small boat of hope)
Laykay chulli purawuyya
(Drifting about in the Eastern wind)
Dolay dolay, jhumakaa bolay
(Swaying about, my earring speaks to me)
Chupakay say ye bhaid kholay
(Revealing a secret, ever so slowly…)
Aajaegaa Aajaegaa, pyaar say tum bula’ana!
(Your beloved will return if only you call to him… Lovingly!)
~ Lata Mangeshkar (Lyrics in Hindi / Urdu—along with my ad hoc translation in parentheses—from the extraordinary 1977 Indian movie Swami, starring Shabana Azmi)


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