WHEN I WAS young my parents, both amateur artists, acquired with delight two illustrated volumes called The Sketchbooks of Leonardo da Vinci. “Who’s Leonardo da Vinci?” I asked.

“He was a genius.”

“What’s a genius?”

“Someone who is good at everything.”

I turned the pages, greatly intrigued. I could make out the flying machines and the art sketches, but most of it was inscrutable and I turned to other things. Now opening The Science of Leonardo, I recalled that experience, and was delighted to find that all was explained. Fritjof Capra presents us with a picture of the man and an insight into his remarkable scientific vision, both equally fascinating.

He was a sensitive vegetarian who charmed all he met and secured the patronage of a succession of princes; a painter surpassing all his contemporaries in technical skill, revolutionary composition and sensuous presentation; a recluse who revealed barely a fragment of his private life to posterity; a prolific writer who planned innumerable future volumes, but whose unfinished notebooks were scattered at the hands of a succession of unscrupulous collectors and so had no influence on succeeding generations; and a scientist.

His science is still largely unexplored today after previous authors have expounded his art, anatomy, engineering and botany. Capra emphasises that Leonardo’s method was the first to be truly scientific. In any of his investigations he began by examining previous authorities – with some difficulty, for Leonardo never learnt Latin. His work was then based first and foremost on painstaking observations. These were repeated many times to ensure they were general and stable, developed through steady improvement in experimental technique, faithfully recorded throughout prolonged investigation, and then distilled into underlying principles which were generalised to cover an increasingly wide range of phenomena.

This is a fully fledged science, standing in stark contrast to the practices of his contemporaries who read the classical texts and went no further. At the end of his life his knowledge of, for example, the process of human vision became almost as great as that achieved by Descartes more than a century later, and in some ways surpassed it, as in his suggestion that light is a wave phenomenon.

Capra’s main point, however, is that Leonardo’s science was wholly unlike that to be developed later. The science of Descartes was based on a particular sort of mathematics using algebra and number. That of Leonardo was based on the the interplay and transformation of spatial forms. His sketches of turbulent water, for example, draw analogies with corresponding sketches of the foliage of plants, and both are clearly analysed in terms of transformations of mathematical spirals. This emphasis on qualitative form, raised to precise scientific principles, points, says Capra, to the “new sciences” of cognition and complexity that are only now emerging in our century.

It is also strongly reminiscent of the controversies around the edges of science today: between, on the one hand, mainstream science in the tradition of Descartes and, on the other hand, the guerrilla science of Rupert Sheldrake, emphasising causation through forms (‘formative causation’), or Henri Bortoft’s reworking of the science of Goethe. Might Leonardo’s work five centuries ago turn out to be even more revealing than these?

It is a fascinating possibility, but in the end Capra’s evidence left me with a verdict of “not proven”. I have spent many hours on bridges looking at weirs and sluices, and I find that Leonardo’s notebook drawings based on transformations of spirals just do not look like turbulent water, despite Capra’s claim to the contrary. By contrast, the concepts of energy and vorticity developed in the 19th century by Helmholtz do enable me to both see and feel what is going on in a turbulent stream. Perhaps the role of this absorbing book is not to introduce a Leonardic science into the modern world, but to heighten our sensitivity to the many different ways in which we can make sense of and deepen our wondering at the amazing world around us.

Chris Clarke was Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Southampton, UK, and is a Council member of GreenSpirit.