Triple appointment for historian

first_imgAward-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed, J.D. ’84, will become a professor at Harvard Law School (HLS) and a professor of history in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in July. She also will become the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.Gordon-Reed — recipient of the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize in history, and a National Humanities Medal — comes to Harvard from the New York Law School, where she was the Wallace Stevens Professor of Law, and from Rutgers University, Newark, where she was the Board of Governors Professor of History. She served as the Charles Warren Visiting Professor of American Legal History during the fall of 2009 at Harvard Law School. During this spring term, she served as a visiting professor of law at New York University School of Law.Gordon-Reed said, “I am enormously pleased to become a part of the Harvard community once again. I look forward to working with the students and faculty members at the Law School and in the History Department, and to experiencing the rich interdisciplinary environment at the Radcliffe Institute.”“I celebrate the fact that Annette Gordon-Reed has accepted our invitation to join the Harvard Law School faculty,” said Dean Martha Minow. “Her extraordinary scholarship combines intensive archival research, brilliant lawyerly analysis, and tremendous historical imagination, as well as a gift for writing riveting prose. Long proud of our own graduate, we here at the Law School are delighted she will join our faculty and also participate in the life of the University through affiliations with Radcliffe and the History Department. Colleagues, students, and aspiring scholars rejoice over the chance to work with her as she deepens historical understanding of law, slavery, and the human experience.”Barbara J. Grosz, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, said, “I’m thrilled that Annette Gordon-Reed will join us as the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute.” Reflecting on Gordon-Reed’s interest in the institute’s cross-disciplinary community of scholars, scientists, and artists, Grosz said, “I very much look forward to her participation in the institute’s Fellowship Program and the activities of our Academic Engagement Programs.”“I’m very pleased that a scholar of Annette Gordon-Reed’s ability and depth will be joining the History Department,” said Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “And I am excited that Harvard College students will have the opportunity to learn directly from an award-winning historian and renowned legal scholar.”Gordon-Reed is the author of  “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy” (1997), which examines the scholarly writing on the relationships between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. The book was a finalist for the annual Library of Virginia Awards. Gordon-Reed’s most recent book, “The Hemingses of Monticello” (2008), which traces the lives of four generations of a slave family, won numerous awards, including, in addition to the National Book Award and the Pulitzer, the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic Book Award, the George Washington Book Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the New Jersey Council of the Humanities Book Award, the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, the Library of Virginia Literary Award, and the Southern Historical Association Owsley Award. The book was also a finalist for the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award. Two more books, “Jefferson: A Reader on Race” and “Andrew Johnson,” are forthcoming.Gordon-Reed is also the co-author of “Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir” (2001), which was written with Vernon Jordan Jr. and received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. She is editor of “Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History” (2002).Gordon-Reed is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations. Prior to becoming an academic, she was counsel to the New York City Board of Correction from 1987 to 1992. In this capacity, she helped to formulate policies, grievance procedures, and legislation affecting inmates. After graduating from HLS, Gordon-Reed was an associate at Cahill Gordon & Reindel in New York.While a student at Harvard Law School, Gordon-Reed served as an editor for the Harvard Law Review. In addition to her J.D., she holds an A.B. from Dartmouth College in history and an honorary doctor of letters from Ramapo College. She will receive an honorary degree from the College of William & Mary in mid-May.last_img read more

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Harvard students help show Sox faithful ‘green’ is the new ‘crimson’

first_imgAs President Drew Faust threw out the ceremonial first pitch during Harvard Night at Boston’s Fenway Park on Sept. 22, thousands of spectators  were busy throwing out their recyclable plastic cups and bottles in the bags held by 30 Harvard students who spent the evening volunteering for the Red Sox Green Team.  The students, the majority of whom were freshmen who had expressed a commitment to the environment and sustainability through the Green ’14 program, were joined by the University’s recycling czar Rob Gogan and staff from the Office for Sustainability.The volunteers’ evening kicked off with an orientation from a member of the Red Sox staff and then the eager group of students spread throughout Fenway to collect bags of recyclables. The students said they appreciated the opportunity to help the environment and represent the University while exploring the nation’s oldest ballpark.“The experience was incredible! Not only did we get to explore Fenway Park, but we all got to do something we were passionate about,” said Kristen Wraith ’14.  “It was amazing how well the crowd responded to the Green Team. I had so many people thank me for what I was doing and ask how they could do the same. This is something that I would do again in a second.”This wasn’t the first group of Harvard students to help show the Fenway faithful that “green” is the new “crimson.” Last spring, a group of Graduate School of Education students volunteered on the Fenway Green Team during the Red Sox first home game of the season. The Red Sox organization recruits volunteer Green Teams to collect recyclables during games throughout each season.As part of Harvard’s commitment to building a healthier, more sustainable campus the University has made recycling and composting a priority.  The recycling rate at Harvard’s main campus is 55 percent, thanks in part to the adoption of single stream recycling.  Single stream recycling means all recyclables – from paper products to bottles and cans – go in the same bin. Recently, Harvard Recycling announced that even paper coffee cups and pizza boxes (if the food has been scraped out) can be recycled. Of course, it’s always best to bring your own reusable coffee mug with you to reduce waste and even save money (many cafes on campus offer discounts to students with reusable mugs). Recycling is also incorporated into all home football games at Harvard Stadium.To learn more about single stream recycling, check out Harvard’s September Green Tip of the Month.last_img read more

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Daniel Bell, social scientist, 91

first_imgDaniel Bell, the Henry Ford II Professor of Social Sciences Emeritus at Harvard University and one of America’s most dynamic thinkers, died on Jan. 25. He was 91.Born in 1919 in New York City, Bell graduated from the City College of New York with a bachelor’s degree in science and social science in 1938, and studied at Columbia University from 1938 to 1939. His career began with journalism — Bell served as managing editor of The New Leader, then as labor editor of Fortune, and finally co-editor of The Public Interest.He taught at the University of Chicago and Columbia before joining the Harvard faculty. He retired in 1990.His most famous books include “The End of Ideology,” “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society,” and “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism” — the first and latter books were listed by the Times Literary Supplement as among the 100 most important books in the second half of the 20th century.Bell leaves behind his wife, Pearl; a daughter, Jody; a son, David; and four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. The funeral will be private.A memorial service for Daniel Bell will take place on April 15 at 1:00 p.m. in Harvard’s Memorial Church.last_img read more

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Harvard opens outdoor rink

first_img* In the audio slideshow above, Trude Renwick talks about her experience figure skating at Harvard Skate, a new rink located in the plaza adjacent the Science Center. Harvard University today launched Harvard Skate, part of the University’s yearlong 375th anniversary celebration.Scheduled to open on Jan. 17, Harvard Skate is a 40-foot-by-60-foot ice skating rink that will be temporarily located in the plaza adjacent to the Science Center.  It will be open and free to members of the Harvard community and the public.“Harvard Skate reinforces the University’s commitment to campus vibrancy and community building and presents a wonderful opportunity to engage students, faculty, staff, friends, and neighbors,” said Katie Lapp, Harvard’s executive vice president. “The skating rink will serve as a seasonal gathering place and will offer a fun community activity throughout the winter months.”One of many activities being organized to celebrate the University’s anniversary, Harvard Skate is managed under the Common Spaces program.Visitors will be able to skate or simply relax and enjoy some hot chocolate. On-site skate rentals will be available, and patrons are welcome to bring their own skates.  Students from Harvard Student Agencies will oversee skate rentals and hot chocolate sales.The Common Spaces program began in 2009 and was designed to strengthen the Harvard community by creating informal gathering spaces for students, faculty, and staff.  The events management division, a group within Harvard Campus Services, coordinates Common Spaces in conjunction with partners from across the University, including the Office of the Provost, the Harvard College Office of Student Life, and the University Planning Office.See more information about Harvard Skate, including hours of operation.last_img read more

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Religion and politics, now

first_imgMore than half a century after John F. Kennedy dismissed the role that his Catholic faith would play when he was elected president, today’s candidates for the nation’s highest executive office still have to navigate the electoral implications of religion.In a talk sponsored by Harvard Divinity School (HDS), four religious scholars took up the question of “Religion and the Election: Does it Matter?”The panelists suggested that while the faith of any individual candidate seems less important now to the electorate, Americans remain attracted to candidates whose values mesh with their own views, which are largely informed by specific religious traditions. Religion can help to shed light on important election issues, the panelists agreed, but a couple of them worried that religion can also be a means of defining voters too narrowly.Max Perry Mueller (at podium) offers his point of view while panelists Dan McKanan (seated from left), Ruth Langer, J. Bryan Hehir, and the Rev. Jonathan Walton listen.Religion and election issuesFor panelist J. Bryan Hehir, politics and religion “certainly should be” connected in domestic policy, foreign policy, and health care. Those issues are part of the secular debate, he said, but should also be discussed in “religious moral terms.”Concern for the poor, a tenet of the Catholic Church that focuses on the welfare of society’s powerless, is useful when thinking about debt reduction and fiscal policy, said Hehir. The same principle is helpful in foreign policy and in nonproliferation, an issue “inherently discriminatory” when viewed through an ethical lens. “We’ve got to deal with the question, in the wider perspective of the world,” said Hehir, the Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life at Harvard Kennedy School, “of how to reduce the privileges that come with nuclear weapons.”Religion can also offer a multidimensional perspective on health care, he said, including the “social justice” question of medical coverage in the United States.A Jewish perspectiveThe nation’s Jewish population is also a cultural community drawn together around common concerns, said Boston College Theology Professor Ruth Langer. Unsurprisingly, its top concern is Israel. According to Langer, Jewish voters in the United States want a candidate who will support that nation and a viable peace process. They also want someone well-versed in the nuances of international affairs.Over the past four years, many in the Jewish community have developed “deep concerns” about President Barack Obama’s level of understanding of the political and emotional complexities of the region, said Langer.Mormon diversityMitt Romney’s candidacy and a hit Broadway musical have brought Mormonism into the spotlight, both in the election and in popular culture. Such exposure has shown a diversity among Mormons, one that could have political implications, said Max Perry Mueller, a Ph.D. candidate at HDS and associate editor of the online news journal Religion & Politics.While a recent Pew Research Center poll said that 74 percent of Mormons are leaning toward voting Republican, Mueller painted a more diverse political and ideological picture of the members of the Mormon Church, one that includes subsets like Mormons for Obama.Defining evangelicalsAccording to another scholar, evangelicals are also diverse. Jonathan Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, and professor of religion and society at HDS, deconstructed the popular belief that evangelicals are largely white, conservative, and middle class.Instead, the term, argued Walton, includes those to the far right concerned with Christian Reconstructionism, progressives on the left whose evangelical tradition is tied closely to social justice, and many people in between who defy easy classification.“In 2006, 38 percent of Americans self-identified as evangelicals, yet when measured against the nine-point criteria derived from the belief statement of the National Association of Evangelicals, only 8 percent would qualify as evangelicals.”Those evangelicals, said Walton, are “less likely to be married, they have lower household incomes, they are less Southern, they are less conservative, they are less Republican, and they are less white.“When one considers all of these factors,” he said, “does the evangelical vote really matter at all? Or is it just something created by the infotainment news cycle to be a nice story about the ways evangelicals impact national elections as long as we define them in a particular sort of way?” <a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbKfKYNhL1U” rel=”nofollow” target=”_blank”> <img src=”https://img.youtube.com/vi/DbKfKYNhL1U/0.jpg” alt=”0″ title=”How To Choose The Correct Channel Type For Your Video Content ” /> </a>last_img read more

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Harvard’s graduates, aiding others

first_img“It is a fundamental purpose of the modern research university to develop talent in service of a better world. This commitment is at the heart of all we do,” said Harvard President Drew Faust during her 2010 Commencement address. With the Harvard Alumni Association’s (HAA) sixth annual global month of service taking place this month, alumni are putting the University’s core value of public service into practice in their communities around the world.“Our alumni care deeply about service, and there’s a long tradition of service in the alumni community,” said Kristen DeAmicis, director of university-wide alumni engagement for the association. “The global month of service is an opportunity for us to recognize and celebrate the service that’s already being done by alumni, and engage new people in service as well.” Opportunities for alumni to connect with each other and their communities abound during the month of service, from initiatives to clean riverbanks to helping community food banks to mentoring young people and providing pro bono professional services.The effort kicked off last Thursday evening at the Harvard Divinity School (HDS) with an association-sponsored panel on public service moderated by Gene Corbin, assistant dean of student life for public service. Panelists included Emily Click, HDS assistant dean for ministry studies and field education and lecturer on ministry; Christine Letts, Rita E. Hauser Senior Lecturer in the Practice of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS); and Laurence Ralph, assistant professor of African and African American Studies and assistant professor of anthropology.Corbin opened the discussion by asking why public service is so vital for a research university. Click had an answer: “Excellence in scholarship does not stand in isolation,” she said. “It needs to be partnered with service to human needs.”Ralph agreed, adding, “Public service enriches learning. About 52 percent of undergraduates will be engaged in some form of public service before they graduate, but we need to make their engagement more sustainable, to develop the habit so it becomes a lifelong value.”Letts emphasized public service as a way to grapple with difficult issues and help teach students complex problem-solving skills. “We want to give students a skill set and an understanding of the broader problems,” she said, “instead of having them just feel good about a single intervention.”The panel turned next to alumni’s role in public-service initiatives. “Our alumni go out and establish organizations that are making a difference in our communities,” said Click, “and then they open them up for our students to come and learn. I’m so thankful for what they do. Alumni also serve as experts and give feedback” on integrating educational approaches with real-world practice, she noted.Ralph said Harvard’s alumni network provides invaluable professional support. “Personal relationships among alumni make a big difference, especially when people find themselves uncomfortable in seemingly intractable situations,” he said. “Alumni are indispensable in offering support and giving our undergraduates opportunities to serve.”He added, “Sometimes it’s important to hold students in places of discomfort” so they can expand their personal and professional development, and question their status and assumptions. Alumni mentors can play a key role in that difficult process, he said.A final issue was how the University values and recognizes public service, on campus and among alumni. “We need different ways of describing contribution and achievement,” said Letts. Corbin added that “at the institutional level, we need to say, ‘We value public service.’ Recognition is a basic human need. President Faust gets it and has worked hard to highlight public service.”The association’s Lisa Unangst, assistant director of HAA Clubs and shared-interest groups, said after the event, “We’re so grateful for the efforts our alumni make to give back in ways that feel relevant and authentic to them.“ She offered two examples: “The Harvard Club in Concord has had a long-term partnership with a nonprofit called Community Servings, and provides a group once a month to help make and deliver meals to people with critical and chronic illnesses,” she said. “The Harvard Club of San Diego is focusing its service efforts on sustainability, and working with an organization called Grid Alternatives to install solar panels in disadvantaged areas of Southern California.”“Service is something our constituents are engaged with year-round, and we’re always looking for tools and resources to help support them,” she concluded.For more information about the global month of service, visit the HAA’s website at http://alumni.harvard.edu/events/global-month-service or contact HAA’s Lisa Unangst at [email protected]last_img read more

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Strong carbon emission standards for power plants would improve air quality

first_imgCurbing carbon pollution from U.S. power plants will help address both global climate change and reduce other air pollutants — including ozone, fine particulates, acid rain, and mercury pollution — that can harm people, forests, crops, lakes, fish, and wildlife, according to Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), Harvard Forest, and Syracuse University researchers.The scientists released a study mapping potential environmental health benefits of power plant carbon standards. The report, issued May 27 at Syracuse University, coincided with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement on June 2, proposing carbon pollution standards for existing power plants.“With a mix of stringency and flexibility, the new EPA rules have the potential to substantially reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from power plants, which contribute to local and regional air pollution,” co-author Jonathan Buonocore, research fellow at HSPH’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, said in a statement. Read Full Storylast_img read more

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The Textalyzer? New efforts aim to curb texting by drivers

first_img Read Full Story Although most states ban texting by drivers, the problem appears to be getting worse—and road fatalities are on the rise. To change people’s behavior, lawmakers and public health experts are devising new strategies, some of which mimic strategies to combat drunk driving that began nearly three decades ago.Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is developing a new plan based on the effective designated-driver campaign that it orchestrated in the late 1980s, which was promoted by Hollywood, the media, politicians, sports leagues, and corporations. Jay Winsten, associate dean and director of the Center for Health Communication at Harvard Chan School, said in an April 27, 2016 New York Times article that the new campaign won’t focus on scolding drivers for multitasking; rather, it will urge them to be more attentive, and will encourage parents to set a good example for their children.last_img read more

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For Supreme Court justices, faith in law

first_imgThe mood was festive, rather than disputatious, on Friday evening as Supreme Court Associate Justices Stephen G. Breyer, J.D. ’64, and Neil M. Gorsuch, J.D. ’91, sat down to discuss “the rule of law.”The conversation, moderated by Jeffrey Rosen ’86, president of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, capped a Harvard Marshall Forum dinner in the Harvard Art Museums’ courtyard, celebrating the 70th anniversary of the trans-Atlantic scholarship, which Breyer won in 1959 and Gorsuch did in 1992. And although both justices spent some time recalling their experiences as Marshall scholars, in his first public appearance since joining the court in April Gorsuch dropped some intriguing hints about his views of the law and the role of the court.Speaking of the traits shared by the British and U.S. legal systems, the new justice stressed the importance of law and the primacy of the court. Referring to a “common heritage,” he cited the shared “sense that judges can safely decide the law without fear of reprisal.” This holds true, he said, no matter who is the plaintiff or defendant, as he added that in our system “the government can lose a judgment in its own courts and accept that judgment.”Speaking a day after President Trump called for the Supreme Court to review the lower court decision to block his executive order on immigration, Gorsuch’s words took on extra weight as he said: “That’s how we resolve differences in this country.”Both justices stressed the importance of the general acceptance of rule of law, as well as the civility of the court. The justices shake hands before ascending to the bench, explained Gorsuch, who described the institution as “just nine people in polyester black robes.”“Nine people appointed by six presidents,” he noted. “We’re unanimous about 40 percent of the time.”The exceptions are notable, but even so the rule of law holds. Breyer, for example, brought up Bush v. Gore, which decided the 2000 presidential election. “It was wrong, in my opinion,” the justice said. “But people followed it. They did not go out … and shoot other people.”Comparing the British and U.S. systems, Gorsuch noted the similarities, stemming from the Magna Carta, in that both are adversarial and based on the notion of “certain human rights” and “limited government.”In terms of differences, Gorsuch noted the American system of judicial review, which allows courts to strike down existing law. Some British justices, he said, find this “very worrisome,” adding that this possibility “may be worrisome to some here” as well.He later discussed how only small a percentage of the cases (roughly 300,000 annually) that come before the Supreme Court ever make it onto its docket of 80 or so, “in a good year.”Following an acknowledgments of the work by moderator Rosen (a Marshall scholar in 1988) with the nonpartisan Constitution Center, both justices briefly discussed the role of this foundational document. Gorsuch noted, “Our Constitution was aimed at preserving, not preventing, certain civil liberties.”To an audience of dignitaries and fellow Marshall scholars, the justices spent much of the hourlong conversation in fond reminiscence. Both discussed having their worldviews broadened by the scholarship, which for both was a first overseas experience. Both have since married British women, Gorsuch meeting his future wife in Christ Church Hall at Oxford. This prompted Breyer to note, “I too have married a British woman, and she’s beautiful, but it’s not the same one.”last_img read more

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The incomparable da Vinci

first_imgAfter portraying titans of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics such as Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs, author Walter Isaacson ’74 has now turned his attention to someone whose intellectual triumphs and artistic brilliance may outpace all of the others: Leonardo da Vinci. In a dazzling new biography, Isaacson plumbs da Vinci’s relentlessly curious and creative mind, poring over the to-do lists that da Vinci maintained to hold himself to his intellectual pursuits. Isaacson also digs into da Vinci notebooks crammed with math problems, maps, sketches of “The Last Supper,” doodles, riddles, and notes-to-self in his mirror-image handwriting in an effort to decode what he thought and to retrace how his mind darted between art and science, engineering and the humanities.As the ultimate Renaissance man, da Vinci fused rigorous observation, mathematics, and scientific experimentation with imagination and endless wonder. He was a procrastinator who managed to unlock mysteries of the human body, envision flying machines that predated recorded flight by centuries, and create two of the most celebrated paintings in Western art. He was also a perfectionist who could abandon or relentlessly tinker with projects he deemed flawed, including the “Mona Lisa.” Though known for his exceptionally sharp eye for detail, da Vinci is credited with inventing sfumato, a painting technique in which lines and edges are smudged to simulate how things appear in 3-D.His personal life was also a study in contrasts. Born out of wedlock and having almost no formal education, da Vinci was a savant and a bon vivant popular among the political, intellectual, and courtly elite in Florence and Milan. He was a stylish, even flamboyant dresser who dated younger men but rarely shared intimate details of his personal life publicly. Isaacson spoke with the Gazette about what he learned about da Vinci’s creative process and what his remarkable life still has to teach us.GAZETTE: You’ve written about other giants of math, science, and technology. What prompted you to tackle da Vinci, and how did your exploration of his life reshape your understanding of him?ISAACSON: In some ways, it began for me at Harvard, where the whole point of a liberal arts education is to connect the arts and the sciences in different disciplines. I realized that whether it was Benjamin Franklin or Steve Jobs or Leonardo, the ability to be interested in all fields helped enrich an appreciation for the patterns of nature and also helped enrich their lives. Leonardo is the ultimate person who connects arts and sciences, who connects the humanities and engineering. “Vitruvian Man” is the ultimate symbol of how do we fit into our earth, our universe, and into spirituality, and he does it by connecting the work of great art with the work of great scientific precision.I discovered that he had more than 7,000 pages of notebooks, so I went around the world, from Milan to Seattle, looking at his notebooks and trying to piece together all of the questions he was exploring every day. How his interest in squaring the circle as a mathematical problem tied in with his interest in the flow of water tied in with the way he did “Vitruvian Man” or the “Mona Lisa.” Likewise, I found out that he loved producing theatrical pageants and saw his notes and noticed how they connected to the tricks he used in “The Last Supper.” The purpose was to use the notebooks as a foundation for watching his mind dance back and forth between art and engineering. And that will be the most important recipe for creativity in the future. It’s not just about learning engineering or learning how to code. Nor is it about just learning about literature and poetry. It’s learning about how to stand at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences.GAZETTE: I was fascinated by those notebooks and to-do lists. Both are so ordinary and yet seem to have played such a key role in his creative process. Why did he rely on them?ISAACSON: Because paper was a little bit expensive, he crammed many things on one page. The opening notebook page at the beginning of my book has a sketch of “The Last Supper,” but it also has some geometry problems he was trying to figure out — how the same mathematical pattern underlies swirling water and curling hairs. So you see a playful and extraordinarily curious mind dancing with nature as he hops across the page.A drawing of an elderly bearded man, believed to be a self-portrait of da Vinci. Harvard Fine Arts Library, Digital Images & Slides Collection 1998.00960GAZETTE: Da Vinci’s belief in science, observation, and experiential knowledge was unusual for his time. Where did that belief come from?ISAACSON: It helped that he was born out of wedlock, so he couldn’t be a notary like his father and grandfather. He became very self-taught just when [Johannes] Gutenberg’s printing press is spreading. He becomes what he calls a “disciple of experience.” So he’d read something in a book and then say, “How would I test that?” Or he’d learn something like the Biblical flood and then he would sketch the layers of fossils in sediments near Florence and say, “Well, that doesn’t make sense because these were laid down over thousands of years.” So he questions received wisdom, and like Steve Jobs and a lot of creative people, he’s a bit of a misfit, a round peg in a square hole. He’s illegitimate, he’s left-handed, he’s gay, he’s vegetarian, he’s somewhat heretical. But Florence in the 1470s celebrated people who were from diverse backgrounds, whether immigrants from the fall of Constantinople or people who liked both engineering the dome of the cathedral but also painting the angels that would adorn the cathedral.GAZETTE: Da Vinci is sometimes criticized for his willingness to be distracted and go off on tangents, leaving behind many unfinished works or abandoned pursuits. You say that shouldn’t be viewed as negative. Why not?ISAACSON: There are critics who say that if Leonardo had not spent so much time studying anatomy or squaring the circle or figuring out how to divert rivers or engineering flying machines or dissecting the human eye and studying optics that he would’ve ended up painting more masterpieces and that all of these passions were a waste of time. It may be true he would have painted more masterpieces, but he would not have painted “The Last Supper” or the “Mona Lisa” had he not been deeply interested in all of the patterns across all of the arts and humanities and sciences and engineering, had he not been obsessed with squaring the circle or dissecting every muscle and nerve of the human face or knowing how light strikes the center of the retina differently from its edge. He would not have been Leonardo da Vinci; he would have been a master craftsman, but not a genius.GAZETTE: Did the scientist inform the art, or did the artist inform the science?ISAACSON: At first, the science was used in service of the art, like how do birds fly or how do the muscles of the neck look? But Leonardo, literally as well as figuratively, started dissecting the muscles of the neck and soon he’s dissecting every organ and doing layered drawings of all parts of the body for curiosity for its own sake. He can’t help himself. When he explores a piece of science he needs to know for his paintings, soon he’s geeking out to square the circle or do a cross-section of the human heart, which is not going to help him paint “The Last Supper” but it is going to help make him Leonardo. One of the things we learn is that the pursuit of useful knowledge should be allowed to flow into the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.GAZETTE: You write that what separates da Vinci from other super-intellects and super-talents was his ability to bring imagination to intellect. Can you explain?ISAACSON: Part of his imagination comes from just being so observant about things we forget to study after we outgrow our wonder years, like why is the sky blue or what does the tongue of a woodpecker look like? And then his imagination was honed by his love of theater, and so he would build a prop, say an aerial screw to bring angels down from the rafters in a play. But then he would go on to try and make a real flying machine like the helicopter he drew, because he had the talent of letting his imagination blur into reality.“… He’s a bit of a misfit, a round peg in a square hole. He’s illegitimate, he’s left-handed, he’s gay, he’s vegetarian, he’s somewhat heretical,” says Walter Isaacson ’74 of Leonardo da Vinci. File photo by Jon Chase/Harvard Staff PhotographerGAZETTE: He comes across as a brilliant visionary, of course, but also as a complicated, thoroughly modern man. How did someone who was such a singular figure and a misfit, as you call him, find so much success and acceptance in his day? He was certainly no outcast despite his unusual talents and qualities.ISAACSON: Both in Florence and in parts of Renaissance Italy, for certain periods, there was not only a tolerance of diversity but a joy and celebration of diversity. And that’s what made Florence in the late 1400s so creative. That people of diverse talents, personalities, and lifestyles all worked together and a person like Leonardo — who wore short pink-and-purple tunics and had a young male companion and who indulged in fantasy — was beloved by both the Medicis and, later, other rulers in Italy. He had a very collegial, friendly, and kind personality. In his notebooks, there were more people referred to as “my close friend” than almost any person you can imagine. He loved Donato Bramante the architect, Luca Pacioli the mathematician, and the list goes on and on of the people he would have dinner with so he could ask them questions. He loved other people. In college or at a university, you end up being in the most diverse environment you’ve ever been in, diverse in terms of people’s backgrounds and lifestyles and diverse in terms of their interests. Leonardo loved to be around such enlivening and stimulating diversity.GAZETTE: What lessons does da Vinci’s life offer the rest of us?ISAACSON: We should retain the child-like curiosity that we outgrow sometimes when we leave our wonder years. And we should make sure that both our students and our children are curious about the most ordinary things, like why is the sky blue or why does water swirl when it flows into a bowl. We will never be able to push ourselves to understand the tensor calculus that Einstein used to describe the curvature of space and time, but we can all push ourselves to be like Leonardo and observe whether a bird’s wing goes up faster or down faster when it is flying or observe how the pattern of a hair curl matches the pattern of a swirl of water. That’s a combination of curiosity and observation for its own sake, not because we can make something useful out of it.Isaacson will be in Cambridge on Nov. 15 for a reading at First Parish Church at 7 p.m.This interview has been edited for clarity and length.last_img read more

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