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The DaVinci Code

If there’s one thing we know about scientists, it is that they view the world with an icy logic, pretty much like Spock. They shouldn’t be confused with those other carbon-based units, artists—who are irrational and flighty, not above lopping off an earlobe to make a point. These are stereotypes, of course, and they completely evaporate the minute you meet someone like Lun-Yi Tsai.

Tsai, A92, author of our cover story, majored in mathematics—the queen of sciences, it is often called—and teaches math at Miami Dade College. But he is also an artist. Art is not just his way of unwinding after a hard day of solving Fermat’s Last Theorem. For him, math and art go hand in hand, the math inspiring the art and the art deepening Tsai’s understanding of the math. Tsai’s work is proof that great things happen when art meets science.

The epitome of the artist-scientist is probably Leonardo DaVinci. With the same skills he employed to create the world’s most famous painting, he sketched his scientific observations and worked out his many inventions. Surely there is an important message encrypted in the graceful brown-ink drawings that fill his notebooks.

Galileo got it. A master of perspective and chiaroscuro drawing, he was admitted to the Florentine Academy of Design. It may not be coincidental that in 1609, when he trained his telescope on the moon, he recognized its blotches as the shadows of craters and mountains. Thomas Harriot, an English contemporary who was, shall we say, artistically challenged, saw only a “strange spottednesse.” And let us not forget Darwin, Audubon, and Tufts’ own David M. Carroll, SMFA65, the naturalist whose striking wildlife images graced our Winter 2007 issue. They all got DaVinci’s message.

Deborah Digges got it, too. She was a poet, not a scientist (she is the subject of “Fugitive Soul”)—but she was also an accomplished artist, trained in medical illustration. The flora and fauna that inhabit her poetry are as precisely and vividly depicted as if she had drawn us a picture. She knew how to look at the world.

Art, after all, is as much about seeing and understanding as it is about creating. These skills are too important to be hoarded by artists. When we say scientists must do science and artists must do art, we arbitrarily limit ourselves, like dogs trained to mind an invisible fence. Lun-Yi Tsai ignored the fence, cracking the DaVinci code in the process. And the DaVinci code says this: if you value science, study art.

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