Tag Archives: Leonardo da Vinci

#AdlerWall 01: Write Down What You See

by Shane L. Larson


Have you ever had an awesome thought, maybe on your commute to work, standing in line at the grocery store, or waiting for your kids to get out of ballet? Did you say to yourself, “I’ve got to remember that! I should write that down.”  Then fast-forward to later that day, and you can’t remember what your brilliant thought was?

Our thoughts are ephemeral things; they come and go like the morning dew. Committing them to long term memory requires concerted effort, which if neglected, sees the thoughts evaporate away, lost forever. Fortunately, humans have invented a device to preserve our fleeting meanderings of mind: paper.

"Study of a Tuscan Landscape." This sketch of the Arno Valley is the oldest known work of art by Leonardo da Vinci.

Study of a Tuscan Landscape.” This sketch of the Arno Valley is the oldest known work of art by Leonardo da Vinci. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Paper is very often the central medium in creative endeavours like art and science. Paper is used by creative minds to explore their craft and store their musings for the future. One of my favorite examples is the earliest known sketch by Leonardo da Vinci himself. “Study of a Tuscan Landscape” was a sketch made in 1473 of the Arno Valley. Ink sketched on a piece of vellum, just 15cm x 22cm. Made more than 570 years ago, it deftly captures the master’s keen eye for looking differently at the world. His mind was exploring perspective and a view from on high, his pen capturing the meander of the Arno River and the hulking walls of Castle Montelupo. His interest and observations would continue, and just more than 25 years later would produce another stunning piece, “Bird’s Eye View of a Landscape”, his rendition of what he might see if he could soar over the Tuscan landscape with the birds.

"Birdseye View of a Landscape." Leonardo da Vinci's imagining of what a bird might see, if flying over the Italian countryside. [Image: Wikimedia Commons[

“Birdseye View of a Landscape.” Leonardo da Vinci’s imagining of what a bird might see, if flying over the Italian countryside. [Image: Wikimedia Commons[

Modern, spacecraft view of the Galilean moons, which were only dots to Galileo. Top to bottom: Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Modern, spacecraft view of the Galilean moons, which were only dots to Galileo. Top to bottom: Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Another favorite record of mine is one of Galileo’s early sketches of the moons of Jupiter. When he first turned his telescope to the sky, Galileo was faced with many visions of the Cosmos that had been previously unimagined. Among these was the discovery that Jupiter had its own system of moons.  This was no sudden and easy realization — when he first saw them he thought they were stars that just happened to be near Jupiter. But over time Galileo saw them trail along with the planet. He embarked on a concerted and ongoing series of observations that when linked together revealed the truth: the little lights were moving around Jupiter. This was no easy feat! From Earth, the orbits of the Galilean moons are, more or less, edge-on. We don’t see them tracing out little circles on the sky — instead we see them slowly moving left to right along a line. The innermost and fleetest of the moons, Io, takes 1 day and 18 hours to make a complete circuit. The outermost moon, Callisto, shuffles along at a slower pace, retracing its steps every 16 and a half days.

Galileo's notes from 1611, from observations attempting to determine the orbital period of the moons of Jupiter, written on the back of an envelope! [Image: Morgan Library]

Galileo’s notes from 1611, from observations attempting to determine the orbital period of the moons of Jupiter, written on the back of an envelope! [Image: Morgan Library]

To ferret out these patterns requires an organized effort. If you simply watch Jupiter through a telescope multiple times, you will see the moons move, even over the course of an evening. That is exactly what Galileo did, and each time he peered through the eyepiece, he sketched what he saw. The sketches presented in Sidereus Nuncius (Galileo’s book, that announced his discoveries to the world) are very clean and organized, and familiar to astronomy enthusiasts. But I think some of Galileo’s original notes are more interesting, because they capture a very human side of the endeavour. My favorite is now in the collection of the Morgan Library. This is a record of Galileo’s observations of the Moons of Jupiter in January of 1611, when he was trying to work out how long it took each moon to circle the planet. The beauty of this is the scrap of paper is an unfolded envelope. I imagine Galileo peering through his telescope, and on the spur of the moment deciding to watch over several days to work out the orbits, so he grabbed what he had at hand. The next night, having fully intended to record it in his proper notes, he used the same scrap of paper because time had gotten away from him that day when he met an old friend at the market. And so on — it’s the way science goes, constantly intermingling itself with everyday life.  I love this old envelope — it gives new meaning to the old adage of doing science “on the back of an envelope.

Though-out history, paper has been the medium by which we preserve knowledge. It has evolved into a fine art-form in the production of books, which harbor the collective memory of our species. But the mass production and archiving of knowledge on paper in libraries, universities, and bookstores has a much more personal face at the level of individual people: their notebooks.

Notebooks are, quite often, as personal to people as the shoes or t-shirts they choose to wear. Some people swear by spiral bound notebooks (often adorned with pictures of kittens or flaming electric guitars) that you remember from grade school; others have moved on to composition books. Artists often have sketchbooks or watercolor books. Others swear by cahiers of the Moleskine style, or by tiny pocket notebooks they can keep in their pocket next to their smartphone.

A collection of notebooks from around the Larson household. This is only a small sample -- I didn't even have to try that hard to find them! [Image: S. Larson]

A collection of notebooks from around the Larson household — every person has their own personal preferences. This is only a small sample — I didn’t even have to try that hard to find them! [Image: S. Larson]

I have many notebooks lives. My scientific life is contained in my research notebooks. These are an ever increasing number of 3-ring binders, with loose-leaf pages within. This includes my own musings and calculations, graphs, articles I have read, print-outs of code, and pictures of my whiteboard. My amateur astronomy life is captured in a series of paired notebooks — one set are my astronomical diary, capturing the times I was out, who I was with, the weather where I was, the telescopes I used, and what I saw those nights. I also have a sketchbook where I try to make some kind of sketch of everything I see. They aren’t great, but they are a record of what I saw, of what I noticed.

My astronomy observing notebooks are my constant diary of the dialog between me and the night sky. [Image: S. Larson]

My astronomy observing notebooks are my constant diary of the dialog between me and the night sky. [Image: S. Larson]

But my constant companion, which my friends will recognize, is my idea notebook. I carry it with me everywhere. I use 5” x 8.25” hardback journals like Moleskines or Insights. I strongly prefer blank pages, but I’m often using lined journals because I’m a sucker for “special edition” journals, connected to pop culture elements, like superheores or famous novels. I like this size because it is small enough to carry around, but is also large enough to have some space to work.  I almost always have it in one of several treasured covers from Oberon Design.

My idea journal is my constant companion, no matter where I go. Here it is on the rim of Upheval Dome, an impact crater in Canyonlands National Park. [Image: S. Larson]

My idea journal is my constant companion, no matter where I go. Here it is on the rim of Upheaval Dome, an impact crater in Canyonlands National Park. [Image: S. Larson]

I put everything in my idea journal — sketches and Zentangles, calculations and research ideas, travel notes, movie ticket stubs, diary entries about cloud formations, notions for Lego models, ideas for posts here at writescience — anything I might not want to forget.  It all goes there, so I don’t forget it. The funny thing about memory is the act of committing it to paper means I often remember what I was thinking later, even without looking it up!

The #AdlerWall implores you to write down what you see — so you can remember, and so you can relate your experiences to someone else, even if that someone is only a future version of yourself.  Try slipping a small notebook in your pocket, and make little jots down in it as you explore the suggestions on the #AdlerWall.

But be warned: sometimes, when faced with a new, empty notebook, with pristine pages unsullied by pen or pencil, it is hard to write that first thing. This is Fear of Ruining the Notebook. Not everyone suffers this phobia, but I have it in spades, as do many others. So to combat it, I have developed a strategy: I have a standard ritual I start with every notebook, initially marking and adorning some pages. This uniquely identifies every notebook as mine, and it gets me past those first panicky moments when faced with pure, blank pages.  The ritual goes like this:

  • Inside the front, on the leaf connected to the front end-page, I write my name and email address — there is often a place for this.
  • On the bottom of that page, I usually put a sticker of… something. NASA missions, national park stickers, anything I happen to have.
  • On the inside end paper, along the seam, I write my name in black sharpie, as well as a glyph I made up in my youth to mean “me”
  • On the other side of the end leaf, facing the first true page of the notebook, I put a portrait painting of Carl Sagan, with the opening paragraph of Cosmos.
  • On the first page of the notebook, I write some kind of stylized intro graphic that says, “New Moleskine.”

I don’t know WHY I do all these things; I probably don’t need to do them all, but I do. If I were superstitious, I would say it would be bad luck to NOT do these things. But irrespective, it breaks in the new notebook and I can start using it!

Typical first pages in all my idea notebooks -- part of my ritual to get over Fear of Ruining the Notebook. [Image: S. Larson]

Typical first pages in all my idea notebooks — part of my ritual to get over Fear of Ruining the Notebook. [Image: S. Larson]

If you are following along and doing the #AdlerWall project, you will likely find you need a way to capture what you see in the world around you. We of course live in the future — your smartphone can capture what you see in pictures, or voice memos, or electronic text.

But you may find something comforting and liberating in using paper to record your journey. Anything can work, as Galileo’s unfolded envelope shows. But just in case you think its too embarrassing to show people your bird sketch on the back of a lunch napkin, or you’re afraid you’ll lose the sunrise inspired haiku you wrote on the back of a coffee shop receipt, maybe a little pocket notebook is a good starting point — something smaller than your phone, that you can always have on hand in your purse or back pocket.

It doesn’t matter what you do; just that you do it.

See you out in the world — I’m the guy sitting on the curbside, making rubbings of leaves I found on the sidewalk. In my notebook. 🙂


This post is part of an ongoing series about the #AdlerWall. I encourage you to follow along with the activities, and post your adventures, questions and discoveries on social media using the hashtag #AdlerWall.  Links to the entire series are here at the first post of the #AdlerWall Series.


Scientific Selfies

by Shane L. Larson

One of the great pleasures of my life is going to scientific conferences. I love sitting through talks, listening to my colleagues weave tales of things I’ve never thought about before. I find something deeply relaxing about simply letting new information seep into my brain and connect to things one might never have expected. It makes my life and daydreams interesting.

A favorite picture of Swiss astronomer, Fritz Zwicky.

A favorite picture of Swiss astronomer, Fritz Zwicky.

I was sitting at a meeting in Denver recently, listening to one of my colleagues spin a tale I’ve heard before, about the dark matter in the Cosmos. The idea that the Universe is not entirely made of the same stuff as you and I was pioneered in the 1930s by Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky, based on a famous observation of the motion in a distant cluster of galaxies known as the Coma Cluster. Zwicky showed that if you count up all the stuff you could see in your telescope and compared it to how much stuff you need to make the galaxies move, there was some matter that was missing, or dark! This is a famous and important result, and my colleague did what we all do when we tell this tale: he put up a picture of Zwicky. More often than not, we all use the picture shown to the left!

Which got me to wondering — if Zwicky were still with us today (sadly, he has gone back to the Cosmos in 1974) and I were to drop him an email asking for a picture of him to show in a talk, what would he send me?

One of the most famous pictures of Einstein, taken on his 72nd birthday.

One of the most famous pictures of Einstein, taken on his 72nd birthday.

There are other examples of funny scientist pictures that are commonly used. Perhaps the most famous is of Albert “Big Al” Einstein, sticking out his tongue. The picture was taken by a UPI reporter on Einstein’s 72nd birthday, and was a favorite of Einstein’s. It is arguably one of the most popular images of Einstein and is used in many venues, especially when talking about complicated physical concepts that derive from Einstein’s work. I use it in two different instances. The first is when I’m trying to convince people that scientists aren’t completely serious people — we like to have fun and goof off; if Einstein did it, so can we! We’re people too! The second is when I’m talking to people about dark energy — a completely unknown physical effect that appears to comprise almost 70 percent of the Universe. Einstein’s famous “blunder,” known as the Cosmological Constant, is a leading candidate for explaining the dark energy. I like to think that if I could call Einstein up on the phone and tell him we were going to use his greatest blunder to explain the greatest mystery in physics today, he might think I was pulling his leg and blow a big raspberry over the phone, like he appears to be doing in this picture!

Not all of my colleagues use pictures when they talk science; not all of them regale us with historical tales of the subject they are outlining. But I always do because to me, the context of the story is as important as the scientific result itself. Science is a uniquely human endeavour — no other species that we know of studies the world like we do. Science, like art, is an intense expression of our innermost creativity and imagination. As such, it is important to me to put a human face on all the great mysteries we have unravelled, and on all the puzzles we are still trying to find answers to.

Consider Jane Goodall, widely known for her decades long research on the Gombe chimpanzees in Tanzania. I would love to be a collaborator with Goodall, so I could ping her for a picture to use. What picture would she choose? There are thousands of pictures of Goodall and the Gombe chimpanzees, many quite famous, but the most striking to me has always been this one by Michael Nichols of National Geographic. It captures so eloquently the interspecies interaction which has always been the hallmark of Goodall’s work. While the unconventional methods Goodall used in characterizing her work has often garnered criticism centered around the anthropomorphization of the chimpanzees, it is precisely the idea that we are closely related to these other Earthlings that makes Goodall and her work so compelling to the rest of us. All the subtle mix of wonder and mystery at this deep connection with our cousins, the great apes, is captured for me in this single image.

One of my favorite pictures of Jane Goodall (photo by Michael Nichols).

One of my favorite pictures of Jane Goodall (photo by Michael Nichols).

The existence of funny or striking images is largely due to the development and commercialization of film. Today especially, pictures are cheap and easy — goofing off for the camera is a worldwide pastime! But before cameras and photography became common, photographic pictures were posed and planned. As a result, as one looks back in time, it seems to me that we often simply have the image of famous scientists, and little of their personality. But I still show their pictures.

James Clerk Maxwell with his wife Katherine, and an unidentified sheep dog. :-)

James Clerk Maxwell with his wife Katherine, and an unidentified sheep dog. 🙂

This is one of my favorite pictures of James Clerk Maxwell, though it is not one you often see. It shows the iconic Maxwell that is so well known to physicists, in his mid-life, with his signature bushy beard, together with his wife Katherine. Maxwell was a phenomenal physicist, contributing to many areas including color photography and thermodynamics. What he is most well known for, however, is the combination of electricity and magnetism into one, unified description of Nature now called “electromagnetism.” It was the first time humans had ever come to the realization that there was some deep unification possible in the Laws of Nature, and set the stage for fundamental physics research that continues to this day; the quest to find the Higgs boson is the distant descendant of Maxwell’s original epiphany about unification. What I love most about this picture is that Maxwell had a fuzzy sheep dog! If Maxwell had posted this picture to Instagram, I’m sure I’d shoot him a text right away saying, “LOL Jim. What’s the dog’s name?”

Portrait of a man in red chalk. Possibly a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci.

Portrait of a man in red chalk. Possibly a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci.

Beyond the horizon in time when photography was invented, our memories of distant ancestors and figures is reduced to art. It is no secret that I harbor a deep romanticism for Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps the greatest polymath known in history. It is a fond daydream of mine to imagine sitting on a hillside somewhere with Leonardo, sketching in my Moleskine next to the great master as we engage in idle chit-chat, speculating on the awesome machinery of Nature and how we humans might tap into that machinery and be more than we think ourselves to be — to fly, or traverse the wide oceans, or to build a violin whose sound would make the masses weep with joy to hear the sound of it. There are many portraits of Leonardo, but the one I carry in my mind is one that is thought to be a self-portrait (though this is debated), the famed “Portrait of a man in red chalk.” If it is Leonardo, it shows him late in his life. I’m most captivated by the eyes in this portrait — deep, hidden under bushy eyebrows, the corners lined with wrinkles that I imagine must be derived from a life filled with laughter and delight at all the world has to offer. Too much to read into fading lines of chalk sketched five hundred years ago? Perhaps, but it keeps me putting my pen to paper every day, spilling out crazy ideas and imaginings about the world. What would Leonardo do?

Because I do place great stock in the human story of science, my passion for showing pictures of scientists doesn’t end with historical retrospectives. Most of my colleagues have at some point in our collaborations been asked for a picture, so I can show the world the people I work with. They are all brilliant, unique, imaginative scientific minds. As you might imagine, their pictures reflect their inner brilliance. I show their pictures when I give talks to bring those human dimensions to our work, because I am proud to call them friends and colleagues.

Some of my collaborators, in self-chosen portraits.

Some of my collaborators, in self-chosen portraits.

Here is my academic family, my research group from my last year at Utah State University. They are, each of them, singularly brilliant and talented. Every one of them is just beginning to write their stories. I have no doubt that if they come visit me in the old scientists’ home when I’m 107, they’ll bring pictures of their adventures and tell me tales of the paths they walked in the world, no matter what they might be. We’ll pull out this old picture, and laugh at how young we all were back then, and how quaint “digital pictures” were back when that technology was new-fangled.

My academic family, in self-chosen portraits.

My academic family, in self-chosen portraits.

My scientific selfie. :-)

My scientific selfie. 🙂

Someday, one of my students, or one of you, will need a picture of me for something. When you do, do me a favor — no serious pictures. If I’m lucky, I’ll have some odd little picture that is so awesome everyone will use it, just like the picture of Fritz Zwicky. Until then, I’ll leave you with one my favorites — my selfie. Not as compelling as Goodall’s picture, nor as elegant as Leonardo’s portrait, but maybe as serious as Einstein’s. 🙂

Knowing something about everything

by Shane L. Larson

During the early 1970’s, a yellow cab crawled up Park Avenue in New York City. By all accounts, this was an innocuous happenstance, repeated thousands of times a day before and since.  But this cab ride was special, because it gave rise to one of the greatest treaties in human history, the so-called “Park Avenue Treaty.” The signatories were Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, who agreed that Asimov was required to insist that Clarke was the best science fiction writer in the world (reserving second best for himself), while Clarke was required to insist that Asimov was the best science writer in the world (reserving second best for himself).  The treaty was famously referred to by Clarke in the dedication to his novel, Report on Planet Three, which read “In accordance with the terms of the Clarke-Asimov treaty, the second-best science writer dedicates this book to the second-best science-fiction writer”.

Arthur C. Clarke (left) and Isaac Asimov (right), the signatories of the Park Avenue Treaty.

The treaty is indicative of one of lost truths of those by-gone days — Asimov was widely regarded as one of the finest communicators of science, though he is most often remembered for his science fiction (if you haven’t read the original Foundation Trilogy, stop reading this now and go find a copy; this blog post will be here when you get back).  He became a proficient and popular science writer in the years after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, when there was widespread concern about the “science gap” between Americans and the rest of the world (an earlier incarnation of the current growing science gap in our country).  Asimov’s writings were wide ranging, accessible to broad audiences, and enormously popular. Kurt Vonnegut once famously asked Asimov how it felt to know everything.  Asimov replied that he was uneasy with his reputation for omniscience.

Despite his play at modesty, Asimov’s reputation was not ill-deserved.  He was, by all accounts, a polymath — a person whose intellect and expertise span a vast number of areas in the entire body of human knowledge. There have been many polymaths throughout history, many of their names are well known in our popular culture.  Perhaps the most famous, was Leonardo da Vinci, widely regarded as one of the finest mechanical geniuses and artists who has ever lived. Apprenticed as a young boy to the artist Verrocchio in Firenze, Leonardo was immersed and trained in artistic and technical skills of the day: drafting, metalwork, drawing, sculpting, and painting.  Leonardo’s skill manifested itself even at this early age.  Anecdotal stories tell that when he began painting under the tutelage of Verrocchio, the young Leonardo’s skill was so great that Verrocchio swore to never paint again.  In his life, Leonardo produced stunning works of art that have survived and are revered today — the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and the Vitruvian Man.  One of my favorites works is the first sketch that we are certain is a work of Leonardo, of the Arno Valley from 1473. It is a simple line sketch that somehow captures the effervescent beauty of that far away Italian countryside, though I have never been there.

“Study of a Tuscan Landscape.” This sketch of the Arno Valley is the oldest known work of art by Leonardo da Vinci.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine the young Leonardo sitting on a grassy hillside, his pen and paper in hand, recording the image of his home in quick lines and shades. As the shape of the Arno Valley emerged and the walls of the Castle Montelupo sprang up on the page, his mind must have wandered in the fertile ground of imagination, exploring new seeds and thoughts planted by the sun and the landscape. Leonardo was not one to let seeds go untended. His genius and creativity are well known, spawning not only some of the most famous works of art in western culture, but also straying to ideas about flight and helicopters, harnessing the Sun’s energy by concentrating it, and the possibility that the Earth’s surface moved (something geologists today call plate-tectonics). No topic was too mundane, nor of little interest to Leonardo. He was a true polymath.

It is a funny fact of human nature that we discourage the behaviour that we so often value.  Polymaths dominate the ranks of the most revered scientists of all time: Leonardo, Galileo, Newton, Huygens, Feynman, Dyson. But in academic circles, polymathism is discouraged. University professors are often encouraged to be narrow minded, to focus their attention and efforts in narrow back-waters of science so they are the world’s single expert in very rigidly defined and narrow boxes of knowledge.  Somewhat surprisingly then, the most awesome applications of human imagination to science are efforts that are highly interdisciplinary, requiring expertise from hundreds of scientists in an astonishing variety of fields.

Approximately a hour to the west of Vinci, on the outskirts of Pisa, one of the greatest miracles of the modern age is taking shape.  Astronomers and physicists, in collaboration with computer scientists and engineers and laser technologists, are constructing an enormous, multi-kilometer long laser interferometer called Virgo (http://goo.gl/maps/CYzrE).  A similar, but smaller observatory called Geo has been constructed in the farmlands outside of Hannover, Germany (http://goo.gl/maps/Ozlco).  The Japanese are constructing another facility called Karga underground at the famed Kamioka Observatory in western Japan.  Two larger observatories have also been built in the United States, called LIGO — one in the high desert of eastern Washington near the Hanford Reservation (http://goo.gl/maps/C1QEj), and one in the verdant cypress forests of Louisiana near Livingston (http://goo.gl/maps/pifQn).

These massive scientific instruments are the cousins of interferometers that have been used in physics laboratories for the past century, simply enlarged by a factor of 4000 and instrumented with state of the art lasers, seismic isolation systems, the world’s largest vacuum system, 30,000 environmental sensors and one of the most powerful linked computer networks ever created for scientific analysis.  The goal is to detect one of the holy grails of physics: gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves are a completely new way of looking at the Universe, not with light, but with gravity.  Virtually everything you know about the Cosmos — everything you’ve ever been taught, everything you’ve ever read in a textbook or seen on the news, has been discovered with light using telescopes.

The Hubble Space Telescope (left) extends our vision deep into the Cosmos, providing views like this one of the Carina Nebula (right), showing us a secret birthplace of stars.

It is a time honored tradition that has passed down to us from another great polymath, Galileo Galilei who built the first telescope in 1609 and wrote about his experiences the following year in the celebrated Sidereus Nuncius (”The Starry Messenger”).  The descendants of that first modest spyglass are simple telescopes you might use in your backyard, as well as the Hubble Space Telescope.  The telescope has taught us much about the Cosmos and our place in it.  But there are new frontiers to be explored by changing our perspective.  The detection of gravitational waves will revolutionize our understanding of compact astrophysical systems. We will be able to directly probe the interior structure of neutron stars (the densest objects known) as they tear themselves apart in titanic collisions; we will watch black holes merge and ringdown, revealing their size and spin; we will see stars plummeting in chaotic spiraling orbits around black holes that will map out the gravitational field to reveal the structure and shape of the hole.  And, if we are lucky, we may even detect the faint echoes of gravitational waves from the Big Bang, whispers across time from an era 400,000 years earlier than any ordinary telescope will ever be able to see.

It was Einstein himself who discovered the idea of gravitational waves in 1916, but he almost immediately discarded the notion of detecting them because the physical effect that has to be measured was, in his estimation, beyond our abilities. Fast-forward to the modern era, and technology has changed.  Not just a single technology, but many technologies.  The instruments we build to detect gravitational waves are a complex synthesis of ideas requiring people of broad mind and discipline.

The enormous arms of these interferometers had to be laid out by our best construction contractors, because the arms are long enough that the curvature of the Earth matters!  The 1 meter diameter vacuum pipes had to be manufactured then spiral welded without any leaks or cracks over the entire 4 kilometers of the instrument arm.  Thermal engineers had to design expansion baffles on the beamtubes that contract and expand with the heating and cooling of the arms with the rising and setting of the Sun. Seismologists and meteorologists and electrical engineers had to create a network of some 30,000 environmental sensors that monitor and report on the health and environment of the observatory.  Exquisite isolation engineers had to build suspension systems capable of filtering out vibrations from everything — people walking down the hall, the echoing tremors of ground motion on the other side of the world, and the rumble of car tires on a highway ten miles away.  Computer scientists and network engineers have designed a computing and data acquisition system that has thousands of individual links, stores and processes data, and delivers that data to a collaboration of nearly 1000 scientists spread around the world.  Master optical engineers and laser physicists have built a laser injection and control system that takes as input a single infrared laser beam, circulates it over 1600 kilometers during 400 trips up and down the vacuum beam line, and brings the laser light all back together to measure minuscule changes in distances that herald the arrival of gravitational wave signals from remote corners of the Cosmos.

LIGO is an awesome machine, whether you are looking down one of the 4 km arms (left), or staring into the guts of the computer system interlinking the instrument and all of its vast sensor network (right).

Standing at the vertex of one of these great instruments, staring down the arm to the distant end stations 4 kilometers away, it is easy to be amazed by the ingenuity of our scientists and engineers — large teams who have butted heads, argued, designed, tested, and ultimately built the most sensitive scientific instruments our species has ever created.  A pool of talented people who had the where-with-all to imagine every possible problem that might be encountered along the way and design a solution.  Talented people who encountered unforeseen problems, ferreted out the cause of the trouble, then built a solution that allowed us to continue down the long road toward discovery.  These great machines, and ultimately the discoveries we make with them, are a testament to their dedication and perseverance, a legacy as great as that of Newton, and Huygens, and Leonardo.  We polymathed our way to these instruments, not through the intellect of a single person, but through the linked abilities of a vast team of people spanning multiple decades of work.  As a result of those efforts, we find ourselves poised on the brink of discovery: breathless with anticipation, and rightfully proud of our accomplishment.

The LIGO-Hanford interferometer, seen from the air.

Standing at the vertex of LIGO, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by two things. The first is the awe-inspiring example of what we can engineer through sheer ingenuity and perseverance. Instruments like LIGO will fundamentally change the way we view the Cosmos, pushing us to look beyond the simple prejudices imposed by the limitations of our physical senses and listen to the grandeur of a Universal symphony we’ve never been able to hear before. The second is that this machine is only the beginning of so much more than just astrophysics. New technology and new insights always flow back to society and are used in startling and unexpected ways, propelling our young species forward. This was true with Apollo, and as many others have pointed out, is true for LIGO.  The LIGO laser technology is already making its way into the carbon composites industry where it is being used to test aircraft parts. Einstein@Home (like it’s big sister, Seti@Home) was one of the first projects to use your home computer to do scientific crowd-computing while your computer was sitting idle during Monday Night Football, turning the world into a vast supercomputer. LIGO’s advanced laser control systems are demonstrating the precise methods needed to shape and control lasers in applications ranging from laser welding, to high precision laser cutting systems, to advanced laser weapon systems.  None of this was intended, but it all sprang from the same fertile ground — the seeds of ideas planted and nurtured from an exquisite mix of ideas stirred together with reckless abandon.  Polymathism in the large.

Standing at the vertex of LIGO, staring down the arm, the joy in our accomplishment is pierced by an unerring certainty that we should be doing more of this.  We need more polymathism in the world, on scales both large and small.  We should unfetter our young scientists, and let their minds stray to the far reaches of wonderfully crazy ideas and fantastic imaginings about what our future could be.  It is hard to imagine that good things can and will result from allowing such freedom, particularly in trying times of economic woe and political discord.  It is even harder for the vanguard of scientific leaders (the “greybeards”, as I call them) to encourage big expansive thinking among our young scientists when the great discoveries could easily overshadow our own seemingly meager contributions to the state of human knowledge; the egos of scientists (despite their outward bravado) are fragile. But that doesn’t change the fact that we need more polymaths, not just to inspire us by charging down the frontiers of discovery, but to address serious problems with new and creative connections and solutions that narrow box thinking will never discover.  The world has serious problems, and we need creative thinking to address those problems.

Standing at the vertex of LIGO, staring down the arm, I wonder what Leonardo would have thought if he was right here with me?  I can imagine him sitting here next to me, with a parchment and a pen in hand, sketching the long lines of LIGO’s arm, the scrub desert of eastern Washington and the distant shadow of Rattlesnake Mountain, and my mind strays into imagination, wondering all the things that could be.