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In da Vinci’s footsteps

By Matin Durrani

All eyes are on the great Italian thinker Galileo Galilei in 2009, in what has been dubbed the International Year of Astronomy.

It is, as you must surely have noticed, exactly 400 years ago since Galileo first turned his telescope to the heavens. As part of our contribution to the IYA, Physics World published a special issue on astronomy in March, which can still be downloaded for free here in case you missed it.

I’ve just come back from holiday in Italy and, although I sadly was not able to make a meeting held in Florence re-examining the ramifications of Galileo’s tiff with the Catholic Church, I did manage to fit in an afternoon in pursuit of that other great Italian polymath — Leonardo da Vinci.

I hadn’t realised that the “Vinci” in his name refers to the place where the great Leonardo was born — a small town in the Tuscan hills roughly equidistant between Florence and Pisa.

The medieval old town contains a fascinating museum, in which some of da Vinci’s famous sketches — including a cycle, an olive-press and a spring-powered cart — have been turned into real objects.

Sadly photography was not permitted inside the building, but you can get some idea of what’s on show by visiting the museum’s website .

What I found perhaps most interesting were some of da Vinci’s ideas for scientific instruments, including a device for measuring the humidity of air. It consisted of a balance with a candle on one side and a ball of cotton wool on the other. As the ball absorbs moisture, it tips the balance in proportion to the amount of water absorbed.

A few miles out of town lies the house where, it is believed, da Vinci was born and where, as a boy, he used to sit and sketch the rolling Tuscan countryside.

Galileo, of course, was born not far off in Pisa in 1564, some 45 years after da Vinci died. What was it about those Tuscan hills that led to two such great minds?

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