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Dome - He Did da Vinci

Dome, Nov. 2009

He Did da Vinci

By: Neil Grauer
Date: November 9, 2009

A Leonardo acolyte's inventive stint on TV


Da Vinci photo
Da Vinci enthusiast Jonathan Pevsner, far left, with the Doing da Vinci team.

Jonathan Pevsner was 17 when he first encountered a charcoal sketch by Leonardo da Vinci in a museum. Mesmerized, he stood gazing for six hours straight at the master’s preliminary sketch for Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist.

In the three decades since, the associate professor of neuroscience has collected more than 700 volumes about (and some by) Leonardo; delved deeply into his scientific notebooks and experiments; and endlessly pondered the workings of the man’s extraordinary mind.

Pevsner’s own remarkable scientific credentials and capacious knowledge of everything Leonardo made him the perfect scholar to participate in the Discovery Channel’s six-week reality series last spring, Doing da Vinci. In the series, Pevsner was paired with a team of California-based designers, engineers, architects and carpenters. Their goal: to work from Leonardo’s sketches to build six different weapons—a multi-cannon machine gun; a chariot armed with blades on its wheels; a self-propelled cart; a giant catapult; an armored tank; and a three-story siege ladder—to see if they actually work.

Pevsner’s own remarkable scientific credentials and capacious knowledge of everything Leonardo made him the perfect scholar to participate in the Discovery Channel’s six-week reality series last spring, Doing da Vinci. In the series, Pevsner was paired with a team of California-based designers, engineers, architects and carpenters. Their goal: to work from Leonardo’s sketches to build six different weapons—a multi-cannon machine gun; a chariot armed with blades on its wheels; a self-propelled cart; a giant catapult; an armored tank; and a three-story siege ladder—to see if they actually work.

“Most of the inventions worked extremely well,” Pevsner says admiringly. The most difficult device to build was the catapult “because the main lever arm broke and it was hard to figure out how tightly to wind the ropes to aim a projectile in the right direction,” Pevsner says. “Given more time, the team would have overcome their mistakes.” There was also the not insignificant challenge of moving a medieval cannonball through the Los Angeles Airport.

Pevsner, 47, who is also an associate professor of neurology at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, says the Discovery series made him “feel closer to Leonardo. Even when tests didn’t work as expected, that made me feel even more connected to the process in which Leonardo confronted these machines.”

Author of Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics, Pevsner studies and teaches about pediatric brain disorders. He believes that Leonardo’s brain would have looked like anyone else’s—but he’d love to find out for sure.

“Each genius is a product of his or her time and place, and if Leonardo had been born 500 years earlier or later he surely would have had an entirely different life story because of the environment,” Pevsner says. “But in any case, I’d sure like to get hold of some of his DNA to find out what we could learn from its sequence.” 

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