2010-07-03 00:00

CAN any dear reader explain to me please why it is irreverent, sinful and in bad taste to say naughty things about Leonardo da Vinci? The silly myth persists, I mean what’s all this sentimental bunkum about? Sure, he was a pretty good artist among many such in Florence, and he had a technique and a style of painting which you could call spiritual, I suppose, but then I equally suppose you could call it kitsch. So what’s all this spooky stuff about a special Da Vinci Code which put him in touch with all virtue, all beauty, all wisdom, all of everything noble in the whole cosmos? Things imperceivable to normal mortal mind? And why am I not allowed to say his most famous pic the Mona Lisa is plain mediocre? It is, so there. The colour is insipid, the composition as unremarkable as the subject. Good painting is about more than a mysterious smile. I could reel off a list of a hundred painters good at mysterious smiles. Come to think of it, I can do mysterious smiles myself.

But let alone the art, that’s just a matter of opinion after all. What interests me is his engineering, which isn’t a matter of opinion because most of it just doesn’t work. People seem to think that because Leonardo was able to draw his devices so well that they ought to function equally well, like that great big wooden tortoise on wheels with a great big cart horse inside and the wheels geared to a couple of bloody great rotating scythes like helicopter blades on either side for chopping off other horses’ legs. But if you were to call in at your local builders’ suppliers and weigh a wooden plank and do some sums you’d realise that this leg chopper-off-er would be so bliksems heavy you’d need a span of sixteen great big horses to move it, then too why should it not chop off your own infantry’s legs, and anyway it’s obvious it would function only on a dead level surface and the only battles that take place on dead level surfaces are sea battles.

I am expected to agree that Leonardo was the visionary who anticipated in this horsetortoise the U.S. Army’s Abrahams A1 Mk 2 battle tank. Now similarly I am expected to agree that he also anticipated the Wright brothers’ logical system of flight control as used on every Airbus and Boeing to this day. Well, bollicks. His logic was that if the wings of a flying machine looked like the wings of a dove it should fly like a dove. The structural members of his wings ran at right angles to the slipstream and you couldn’t get a better air brake than that if you tried. He’d have done better to build his macro-dove of cement. But that was his glider. His powered aircraft was even better. Here he had a big strong lad standing starkers in a sort of wooden trapeze, in which by thrusting his limbs up and down as in swimming he would flap the mighty timber-and-canvas wings of what is known in the aviation world as an ornithopter. A bird-flyer. Being such a keen observer of nature I dare say ol’ L da V didn’t need Darwin to explain that no species ever evolves to have features it doesn’t need and never uses and the youman bean is no different whatever his intellect and his will. So we didn’t evolve to lift our own persons plus such a timber bridge into the air. Easy-peasy, we’ll just put TWO big strong lads in the ornithopter, and so on indefinitely as kilowatts are required, but I’ll have to leave you to work that one out for yourselves, dear readers.

Easy-peasiest of all though is to notice as small small boys/girls do that no flying bird has a wingspan of more than about three metres. And if you were interested enough as a small b/g to look at a few dead birds you’d have noticed that a bird of such wingspan has a body mass not just double that of a bird of half the wingspan but four times as much, and there’s a limit to it. Double the span of the wing and you square the muscle mass to work it, see? So if Leonardo’s flying machine had a span of about twelve metres, as illustrated in proportion to the big strong lad, that would require 2x2x2x2=16 big strong lads to get it airborne. Which curiously brings us back to the sixteen big strong horses we put in the wooden tortoise. There’s something magical about the number 16, like the number 7, or the square root of -1, all of which is in the Da Vinci Code, you betcha.

And we haven’t even got to the matter of forward speed. To double your speed in the above Airbus/Boeing, whatever, you once again have to square your thrust. So, if we have a take-off speed of say thirty kph in the Leonardo ornithopter, to achieve sixty kph we would need 16x16=256 big strong lads for the job.

The mind boggles. But have faith in the Code.


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