221b: Da Vinci, Brevity, X-15, Ballomania, Thinking

Da Vinci

If you want to be a “genius,” it starts with being more curious.

No life illustrates this more than Leonardo da Vinci’s. He never intended to be a famous painter. He simply followed his curiosity and drew things along the way. His adventures included: drawing detailed sketches of war machines; dissecting bodies to learn how muscles and veins work, and then drawing anatomical sketches of them; and cutting open skulls to see how they protected the brain.

His curiosity was enhanced by his desire to observe the mundane. “If you wish to have a sound knowledge of the forms of objects”, da Vinci wrote in a notebook, “begin with the details of them and do not go on to the second step until you have the first well fixed in memory.”

But it wasn’t just big things that caught his attention. Walter Isaacson reports in Leonardo da VInci,* that recovered in his notebooks are to-do lists filled with things like:

  • “Observe the goose’s foot: if it were always open or closed the creature would not be able to make any kind of movement.”
  • “Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air when it ought to be the contrary since the water is heavier and thicker than the air?”
  • “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.”
  • “Inflate the lungs of a pig and see if they increase in length and width, or only width.”

So, was da Vinci a genius? Yes.

But that genius was rooted in two things:

  1. Insatiable curiosity
  2. Intense observation


In 1940, Winston Churchill sent his staff a memo titled *Brevity*. In it, he shared four rules all further written correspondence must follow:

  1. Set out the main points in short, crisp paragraphs.
  2. If the report requires charts, stats, or some detailed analysis or explanation, put it in an appendix.
  3. Sometimes, it's best to write only headings and expand orally if needed.
  4. Don't use drawn-out phrases. Like: "It is also of importance to bear in mind the following considerations..." Or, ""Consideration should be given to the possibility of carrying into effect..." Churchill wrote, "Most of these woolly phrases are mere padding, which can be left out altogether, or replaced by a single word...Let us not shrink from using the short expressive phrase, even if it is conversational."

Churchill later told a private secretary, "It is slothful not to compress your thoughts."

'You Called?'

Joe Walker was the first person to fly NASA's X-15 rocket-powered aircraft. Experiencing the full thrust of the rockets on his first flight traveling 3,700 MPH, Douglas Brinkley writes in American Moonshot,* he yelled, "Oh my God!" into the radio. This prompted the flight controller to respond, "Yes, you called?"


On November 21, 1783, with a paper and silk-covered hot-air balloon, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d'Arlandes set sail in the skies over Paris. They reached an altitude of 500 feet and traveled 5.5 miles before landing safely. This was the first time in history that humans kissed the sky.

Naturally, this event drew a crowd. But as always, some didn't understand what all the fuss was about. Someone complained to a stranger wondering what these balloons could possibly be used for. “What is the use of a new-born baby?” Benjamin Franklin quipped back to the stranger.

Though subtle, that eight-word reply gives us a unique insight into the worldview of Ben Franklin...and the value of curiosity. He knew the potential for innovation lies in the future, of what could be. He understood the fact that most "new" things seem useless.

The President of the Royal Society wrote to Franklin, with a somewhat snobbish attitude, trying to dissuade him from doing too much with the balloons. Sir Joseph Banks said:

"I see an inclination in the more respectable part of the Royal Society to guard against the Bloomania [until] some experiment likely to prove beneficial either to society or science is proposed."

To which Franklin responded:

"It does not seem to me a good reason to decline prosecuting a new experiment which apparently increases the power of man over matter until we can see to what use that power may be applied. When we have learned to manage it, we may hope some time or other to find uses for it, as men have done for magnetism and electricity, of which the first experiments were mere matters of amusement.”

Translation: That's dumb. First, let's see what's actually possible with the balloons, then we can try and find a potential use case.

At first, technical innovation never looks useful, but that doesn’t mean it never will be. Progress advances on a gradient...it's one useless thing after another until someone comes along and puts it all together.

Dismissing an idea before it's fully realized is a great way to never be a part of anything world-changing.

A quote on my mind...

"A habit of finding pleasure in thought rather than action is a safeguard against unwisdom and excessive love of power."

– Bertrand Russel


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