Brain Pickings

You’re a Wonder: How Your Ear Works

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Why temporary deafness is good for you, or what sound waves have to do with the smallest bone in the body.

Yesterday, mathemagician Vi Hart dazzled us with math of noises and science of sound, frequency and pitch. Today, we turn to a complementary short excerpt from BBC’s fascinating Inside the Human Body series, explaining the marvel of human hearing. Listen and learn.

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A Definitive Guide to Leonardo da Vinci’s Paintings and Drawings

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From anatomy to aviation, or what Leonardo’s drawings reveal about cross-disciplinary creativity.

Leonardo da Vinci possessed a rare kind of cross-disciplinary genius. It’s safe to say the Italian painter, engineer, architect, sculptor, scientist and futurist was one of the greatest minds that ever lived, a kind of intellectual and creative powerhouse that influenced centuries of thinkers to come. Now, his life and legacy live on in the simply titled but wildly ambitous Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings and Drawings — a remarkable two-volume tome from Taschen () that surveys da Vinci’s life and work in unprecedented detail, from in-depth interpretations of all 34 of his famous paintings to breathtaking full-bleed details of his masterworks to an extensive catalog of 663 of his drawings. This being a Taschen production, it’s as lavish as they come, at 700 pages, 6.5 pounds and nearly the size of the Mona Lisa, and features appropriately supersized blowups of Leonardo’s paintings balanced with insightful contextualizations by Renaissance theorist Frank Zöllner and art historian Johannes Nathan for the perfect blend of scholarly and stunning.

If Leonardo’s thirst for knowledge and discovery was still held in check in this vision by his fear of the threatening unknown, by the end of the 1480s at the latest he had thrown himself with unbridled enthusiasm into the study of a wide range of fields. While working on the preparations for the Sforza monument, he also embarked on more in-depth studies into the proportions of the human body, anatomy and physiology. These studies, which Leonardo’s contemporaries frequently dismissed as the artistically unproductive whims of a restless mind, have been acknowledged since the 19th century as the forerunners of an empirical science based on the accurate observation of natural phenomena. In his studies of the human body, for example, and above all in his direct visual translation of his findings and insights, the artist was undoubtedly many generations ahead of his contemporaries.”

From how the Vitruvian Man revolutionized the anatomical understanding of human proportions to Leonardo’s fascination with the brain to what his flying machine sketches taught the designers and engineers of the then-future, Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings and Drawings presents a remarkable reminder of the cross-disciplinary curiosity and rigorous dedication that fueled one of humanity’s most prolific, profound and masterful creators.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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Mathemagician Vi Hart Explains the Science of Sound, Frequency and Pitch

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From the cochlea to Coachella, or what mathematical ratios have to do with the enjoyability of melodies.

You may recall mathemagician Vi Hart from her brilliant stop-motion explanation of the Victorian novella Flatland on a Möbius strip. This month, she’s back with another gem, this time exploring the science and mathematics of sound, frequency and pitch. From Pythagoras to the anatomy of the ear, Hart uses her signature playful hand-illustrations to reveal how simple mathematical ratios make pleasing melodies.

For a semi-related treat, see Jad Abumrad’s fantastic PopTech talk on science, sound and mystery.

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