The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Monday, January 15, 2007

Leonardo's speed of perception

Leonardo Da Vinci was a man of many gifts, as is well known. I will not list them here for I have written of him in another post. There is, however, one peculiarity of this remarkable man that I wish to draw your attention to. Among Leonardo's copious surviving written documents (which may only, in fact, be about half of what he wrote, the rest being lost, by careless handling, by those he entrusted it to) there is a series of detailed drawings of a bird's wings in flight, showing the precise disposition of the feathers, as they arrange themselves, at various stages in the flapping motion.

Think about that for a moment. It is easy to overlook the special meaning of those drawings. For a typical human, a bird's wings are a blur, in flight, so fast are they. No ordinary man could see exactly how the feathers were arranged in a flapping bird's wing, but Leonardo could - and he drew them to prove it.

Clearly, Leonardo Da Vinci possessed a speed of perception beyond that of an ordinary man - for him the motion was not a blur, but a clearly visible fluid sequence of motions. Then there is the sharpness of his eyesight, which must have been far surpassed the ordinary man's to see these details in a flying bird, which could have been any distance from him.

Leonardo was not just a universal genius. He possessed abilities that place him outside the common realm of even the company of other geniuses.

It was not until several hundred years had passed and stop-motion photography was invented, that Leonardo's view of how birds actually fly, was proven to be correct: he had seen this with his naked eye.

What do you think of this superhuman speed of perception? I would like your thoughts on it, as I may write further, on some related matter.

(If you would like to read of my scientific child prodigy son, Ainan Celeste Cawley, seven years and one month, or his gifted brothers, please go to: I also write of child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted children and gifted adults in general. Note that owing to a problem with my blogger interface I am presently unable to edit posts and so cannot update the scientific child prodigy guide page. I trying to resolve the difficulty. For recent posts, you will have to go to the head page and hunt through the links on the left-hand side. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 7:52 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A more plausible explanation is that Leonardo DaVinci studied the wing anatomy of dead and/or caged birds and was able to deduce how the feathers would look in flight. Remember Occam's Razor. No need to go for an explanation of superhuman perception when being a curious genius researcher is sufficient explanation.

1:44 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Leonardo did indeed study the anatomy of the wing of birds – for the purpose of constructing mechanical wings, with the intention of developing human powered flight. However, there is something about his drawings of birds in flight which is very clear: they look to be drawn from observation of actual flight. Had Leonardo simply had dead birds wings to study, it is unlikely that he would have been able to construct, from them, their correct conformation in flight. To have done so, is rather like to have taken Rudolf Nureyev’s dead body and from studying it, to have deduced how he might have danced a particular ballet. A dead body and a moving, living body are altogether different things.

We should remember what kind of man Leonardo Da Vinci was. Above all else, he was an observer. His anatomical drawings of the human body are the most accurate and detailed produced in his era and, as studies of the human body, were not equaled for many generations after his death. It is not just anatomy to which he applied the skill of acute observation: it is evident in all that he did. He was not really an experimenter. He was an observer: he saw what was in the world – and drew it. Arguably, his most developed talent was that of observation – and it would not surprise me in the least that, in focusing on observation to such a degree that he should surpass others in his ability to observe – and perceive his world. Everything he did showed a remarkable facility for perception of the world.

Had Leonardo, as you say, studied dead birds and caged birds (would not their flight be constrained and thereby unrepresentative? Would not their wings flap just as fast and invisibly?), there would be many drawings in which signs of simple guesswork – and errors of understanding and perception – would be evident. If he was puzzling out a problem, through deduction, it is likely he would have had to try out various possible theories and see if they worked – and, as a man who thought visually, he would have drawn them. I am unaware of such a series of guesses and experimental interpretations. The extant drawings – and there are over 150 of them – speak of close observation of birds in flight. They do not seem to tell the tale of “Let us see if this way works…or this…or this…”

If your view is true, then Leonardo must have been able to deduce from observation of unmoving dead wings what they would do in flight, in his head, and then draw it, accurately, as it is in actual flight, without trial drawings, or trial interpretations, or guesses of any kind. Doing that is, in its’ own way, even more remarkable than simply being able to perceive things more rapidly than normal. I am given to understand that the actual arrangement of a bird’s feathers in flight and the use of the wings is far from obvious and is much more complex than it might appear. Leonardo did a very good job of capturing the essence of those motions in his drawings.

We cannot know for sure how he did this – but we can know that he did. I am as aware of the meaning of Occam’s Razor as you are – but I am also aware that sometimes its use is instilled with one’s own beliefs and value systems. For instance, if a student passes all exams in extremely difficult subjects, at 100%, at half the normal age those exams are taken at, some people will interpret this phenomena one way, some another. Both would claim that they are using Occam’s Razor. One group might say: “This person is clearly a child prodigy of remarkable intelligence, far surpassing the norm.” The other group would say: “This person is cheating.” Both would justify themselves under the banner of Occam’s Razor. The first would say that the simplest explanation is that the kid is extraordinarily bright. The second would say that the kid is clearly cheating, since otherwise we would have to accept that at least one kid is far outside the human norm – and would claim that cheating is the simpler explanation.

Your argument is much the same kind as the situation above. One view of Leonardo’s achievement in describing the use of the wing in flight, is that he could simply see it, just by looking at a flying bird. One could claim that is a product of Occam’s Razor type reasoning. The other explanation that he deduced it from dead birds, is your claim of Occam’s Razor type reasoning. Yet, that explanation has its own problems. Where are all the erroneous drawings as he tried out movements and dispositions of the wing? How come he leaps from a dead bird to pretty accurate drawings of a wing in flight, without stumbling in the process? That second explanation actually invokes a second class of superhumanity: superhuman deductive and reasoning powers and superhuman ability to model a phenomena in his mind and get the right result and draw it down. Both are equally unlikely if judged from the point of view of what a normal man can achieve – but the point of Leonardo is that he wasn’t a normal man, he was one of the greatest geniuses in history (some would say the greatest.)

Then there is the nature of Leonardo to take into account. He believed in learning from life: in observing the world accurately and making a drawing or other object from those observations. He was neither primarily what you would call a theoretician, nor an experimenter, per se…but an observer.

Somehow he observed the movement of a bird’s wing in flight. Now, either he saw it, or he deduced it. If the former, he possessed supernormal speed of perception; if the latter he possessed unerring deductive reasoning powers that bespeak of a superhuman mind – for there are no wrong trial drawings, only finished pieces that show a bird’s wing in operation.

So how did he do it? The question is an unanswerable one, for the man is long dead. However, we should consider this. No-one else in human history did an accurate study of a bird’s wing in flight, until the invention of stop-motion photography. If it were, indeed, possible for a genius to look at a dead wing and make correct deductions about its exact positioning, shape, use and arrangement of feathers in flight, from such a study – why did no-one else ever do it, in history?

One can't say that no-one else was interested in the problem and so didn't look at it. Human flight has been of profound interest to man, since long before Icarus, of legend. That no-one else managed to do such an accurate study of the motion of birds' wings in flight shows something very clearly: the problem is a whole lot more difficult than you might think (without stop-motion photography to help you). Otherwise, history would have been filled with such studies. It isn't. There is only one such accurate study before the modern world: Leonardo Da Vinci's.

4:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I figured out how he did it. Or one possible way: If you watch, say, an electric fan and then move your eyes to the side really fast you can see an individual fan blade for an instant. Or at least I can. With good visual memory, I could recall that glimpse and begin to work out what exactly it was that I saw and how the glimpses would move in series. And I think between deduction, persistence and very good visual memory skills, he may have been able to piece it together out of small glimpses. He wouldnt have necessarily needed good vision, either, just some hungry pidgeons or ducks to feed and to observe up close. Some people have very good imaginations. I imagined that I WAS a bird once, and it was so realistic, I lost track of reality for a short time.

I dont know how I got this information stored in my visual memory, but I can imagine wings opening and closing and the arrangements of feathers moving around on them as they open and close... I think that pairing observations of pidgeons with my good visual memory and imagination (imagining watching and being a bird would both be helpful, imagining the feeling of wind on my wings might help me figure out how the airflow and lift worked) and good deduction and intuitive skills, I could work out something like how a bird flies. Hmm... I can even imagine the feeling of each feather brushing up against the others when the wings close...

Tesla could imagine an entire machine, even calculating whether the balance was off, and deduce what was wrong with it without having to look at it. Deduction and imagination are very powerful abilities, one doesnt necessarily even need good sight.

Hahaha or maybe he just grabbed a bird by his feet, and watched him try to flap away...

- seng mod

5:33 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Whatever method he used, it is certainly an unusual feat. I have good reason to believe that he simply used perception: that is he looked at it. Yet, other ways may be possible - but more difficult - too.

The sad truth is, we will never know, about this, and about so many other things concerning him.

Did you know that, in addition to his other work, he composed quite a lot of music - but that NONE of this survives. Now that is tragic.

Best wishes to you.

10:33 AM  

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