Starships and ‘da Vincian Design’.
by Kelvin F. Long
I’m a big fan of Leonardo da Vinci and recently I had the honour of visiting the Leonardo exhibit at the National Gallery in London. Although I had to queue for over four hours to get the tickets, the wait was truly worth it. I entered several rooms containing over 90 drawings and paintings by Leonardo or his apprentices. Leonardo is very famous for his many great paintings such as of ‘The Mona Lisa’ or ‘Portrait of a Woman’ or ‘Virgin of the Rocks’. But he is also famous for his many great investigations into science and engineering. What he achieved through the study of knowledge was the application of science to his art, making him one of the greatest artists that ever lived. I think it is at the fusion between the arts and the sciences where we come into our greatest. Many scientists such as Albert Einstein and Paul Dirac recognised that correct equations had a certain beauty or elegance about them, perhaps defined by their symmetry. Even the late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, knew that the best way to create value in the twenty-first century was to connect creativity with technology, so he built an entire company from which the imagination could be combined with engineering, in a creative but useful way. Today we are surrounded by technology, mainly through the medium of a computer. Even engineers and physicists will use computational programs, numerical codes and visualization software to address problems in science. But do we lose some essence of ourselves in this process? An ability to be creative straight from the mind to the board. Leonardo said “A true understanding of all the forms found in the works of nature…is the only way to understand the maker of so many wonderful things and the way to love so great an inventor“. He also said “The divinity which is the science of painting transmutes the painters mind into a resemblance of the divine mind“. These are profound statements but one lesson we could take from the Master is that to understand nature you must be connected to it. Understanding an equation gives you that contact, so that you can as Richard Feynman once said understand a flower on many levels giving you a greater appreciation for its aesthetic beauty. But perhaps also in attempting to draw or paint engineering designs we begin to have an instinct for the rules of nature, as Leonardo did. In an earlier post, I referred to the new art form that Richard Obousy and J R Flemming had created which they called ‘interstellar steam punk’. In the same vein, I wish to advocate another form of art, which I shall call ‘da Vincian design’. This can be defined as a fusion between engineering and physics (or biology) expressed in a creative way, leading to design concepts or explanations which elucidate principles of operations. It is essentially a sketch of something you wish to create, no corrections to mistakes are permitted (to encourage perfection in the drafting process) and it is usually accompanied by equations or descriptions. An example I have produced is shown below, for something that is similar to the Daedalus second stage engine design, surrounded by doodles, thoughts, problem solving and equations. To an outsider it has the appearance of a mad man, but to the person behind it, it is merely the manifestation of their creativity depicted by the pencil and paper, unafraid to sketch away to new innovative designs. Like Leonardo himself, perhaps one day, designs of brilliance will be born and the Leonardo tradition of studying how things work, or could work, can continue. Leonardo designed tanks, parachutes, even studied the wings of birds. One has to wonder what he would have made of the concept of Star travel. Had he realized there were many solar systems in the galaxy, would he have speculated as to the appearance of other life forms (their anatomy) and what varieties of nature they may have enjoyed. Indeed, what would he have thought of designs for a starship? what principles of operations would he had based the engine upon? Steam? gun powder? Cannons? We will never know the answers to these questions of course. Although his art was produced five centuries ago, his tradition of creating engineering machines through the process of art, is as relevant today as it ever was. Leonardo was a polymath on many levels, seeing designs for machines that were centuries ahead of his time. In some ways, we in Icarus are trying to conceive of engineering mechanisms for a Starship design that may not be built for several centuries. In this regard, we are all students of Leonardo da Vinci. For those of you that like to doodle whilst working on engineering problems, sketch away, you never know what creation may spring from that simple sketch born from your minds eye. Kelvin F.Long Vice President (Europe) Icarus Interstellar