It’s a title thrown around a lot these days but more often than not reserved for that exclusive club of individuals who think or act vastly different to the rest of us. There’s no barometer or test for it, but their status is indelibly marked in our culture and agreed upon as some sort of unspoken agreement. Issac Newton, Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, The Beatles, even Michael Jordan to some.
Understanding innovation and genius remains the lifelong work of iconic author Walter Isaacson, a person with an uncanny ability to gaze deeply into the soul of a person, either long since passed (Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein) or recently fallen (Steve Jobs), and show us how their work has shaped the world forever. One man sits above them all, the geniuses genius, Italian artist and polymath, Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci was a man for all ages and someone far ahead of his time. Walter Isaacson spent years of his investigative career trying to unpack the life of this curious and brilliant individual, resulting in an almost 700-page biography just released that tells the complete story of the creative who changed the world forever.
No lightweight himself, having held posts as both the former head of CNN and editor of Time magazine, Walter sits down with us to talk about where America is heading, what ties this superclub together and why we shouldn’t be glorifying the loner in the room anymore.
“The widest and most exuberant curiosity of any other creative genius in history.”
You turn the lens on other people in your work, so what is it that intrigues you so much about the innovations and skills of certain visionaries that you have profiled?
I like looking at people who span different disciplines, especially people who combine the arts and the sciences or the humanities with technology. That includes Steve Jobs but of course, Benjamin Franklin and Einstein are in that category. To me, if you work across disciplines, you tend to feel the patterns of nature, you understand the crosscurrents, and it allows you to make certain creative leaps. Leonardo Da Vinci was the ultimate example of that, and his drawing of the Vitruvian Man standing in the circle of the Earth and the square of the cosmos is a symbol of that.
I think sometimes we tend to categorise ourselves or think in silos, or if we are in the university we specialise in certain disciplines. I like to look at the creativity that comes from thinking across disciplines.
When you take on this huge task of writing about someone’s life, spending years studying them, from our perspective a lot of the time they seem like flawless icons, but when you get down to the core of these people, there are so many different factors making up their lives; the time they lived in, the type of personality and the type of work they created.
I think it is important for historians to be wary of the temptation of imposing the moral thinking of our time on people from the past. We have to understand the times they lived in. That said, it is also important to judge people by whether or not they were on the right side of history, so when we are judging people in America who have monuments to them, those who fought on the Southern side in the Civil War may have thought they were honourable defending slavery during their lifetime, but history shows that they turned out to be on the wrong side of an evolving moral question. So you have to balance understanding who they were in their period with also understanding the judgments history might make on them.
Does your latest project on Leonardo Da Vinci mark the pinnacle for you in what has been an almost existential search for what makes a genius?
Yes, it is the pinnacle, and that’s why I waited to do it. He is the ultimate example of somebody who tried to know everything there was to know about everything that could possibly be known at the time.
A true polymath.
Yes, the true polymath, the person with the widest and most exuberant curiosity of any other creative genius in history. And so I’ve been interested all my life in Leonardo, but I waited to do him as a culmination of all the books I’ve written about people who stood at the intersection of the arts and sciences and other disciplines.
You mentioned briefly the Vitruvian Man. Even to this day, it marks this kind of fascinating insight into him and his work and remains so conspicuous in our culture. What do you think it is about that specific piece that captures the imagination of humanity?
Partly what fascinates me about Vitruvian Man is the likelihood that the guy spread-eagled inside of the square and circle is a self-portrait of Leonardo; that it is a figure of unnecessary beauty if you are just trying to illustrate the proportions of a human, and it is Leonardo reflecting on himself and how he fits into the cosmos. He had two other friends who made drawings quite like it because they were also interested in work in the realm of architectural historian Vitruvius, but Leonardo was the only person to make the drawing both a brilliant work of science and a breathtaking work of beauty.
Just going back to the point you made that historians have an obligation to report history as it was, I know that the book has just been sold off to the highest bidder and Leonardo DiCaprio will be playing Da Vinci in a big Hollywood biopic. Do you think that sometimes Hollywood has a way of fetishizing geniuses?
No, I think that Hollywood has a way of fetishizing celebrities more than geniuses. I was thrilled to see that Ron Howard made my Einstein biography into a movie, and I am also thrilled to have Leonardo DiCaprio buy the rights to Da Vinci. DiCaprio is an environmentalist who cares a lot about the Earth but also cares about performance art and painting, so he’s the perfect person to play Leonardo Da Vinci.
In the Leonardo Da Vinci book, you instil this sense of wonderment, of how curious he is, and his idiosyncracies become infectious. You have said that you worry about the lack of tinkerers and hobbyists today. Talk to me about what you mean by that statement and if there is a connection between this and the importance of curiosity?
I think that curiosity was the most important trait that Leonardo had. He did not have a superhuman mental processing power in the way that Isaac Newton or Einstein did. Instead, he had an insatiable curiosity, and every week he would write lists of the things he wanted to learn in his notebook, and he was largely self-taught. He would describe how they build locks and dams in Milan, or how they walk on ice in Flanders, why a fish goes through water faster than a bird can go through the air, what the tongue of a woodpecker looks like. The cool thing about that is that all of us can train ourselves to be more curious. We can stop and pause more times a day to look at something carefully and ask questions about obvious things, like why the sky is blue or how water gets into mountain streams. These are the types of things that Leonardo asked himself, and through that curiosity, he became the person who best understood nature’s patterns of anybody in history.
I read a piece on the World Economic Forum blog about daydreaming. It made this important comment that behaviours like daydreaming have almost become chastised today for being unproductive in a culture that mostly values outputs. How important is this idea of cultivating daydreams, or thinking outside the box?
You know, Einstein came up with his theory of special relativity by daydreaming and then imagining what it would be like to ride alongside a light wave and try to catch up with it. Leonardo spent a lot of time doing what he called ‘fantasizing’, and he was able to combine fantasy with observation, and you see that in every piece of great art – from his Last Supper to his Mona Lisa. I think that when we instil rigorous thinking in our children we should also remember to carve out the right to indulge in fantasies and daydreams because that’s what the most creative thinkers did.
“Einstein came up with his theory of special relativity by imagining what it would be like to ride alongside a light wave and try to catch up with it.”
How do you feel about this specific statement in relation to all the people that you have studied in your work, this idea that ‘there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come’?
I think the great thinkers are the ones who push the boundaries of ideas and are able to make leaps that others cannot see.
I think that general relativity was not an idea whose time had come; it was a massive leap of thought by Albert Einstein. Likewise, the creativity of everybody I have written about, from Steve Jobs to Leonardo Da Vinci, came from making leaps of the imagination that others of their time did not make.
What do you mean by that specifically?
I mean that even in little ways nobody knew that we needed a thousand songs in our pockets until Steve Jobs imagined what an iPod would be. Nobody knew that gravity was not a force that acted between two objects, but instead was the curving of space until Einstein came up with his general theory. So these were leaps of thinking that went well beyond what others were thinking at the time.
“Nobody knew that we needed a thousand songs in our pockets until Steve Jobs imagined what an iPod would be.”
And are these the tides that develop the general thinking in our culture?
Yes, Leonardo Da Vinci’s ability to make art imitating nature so much more vividly, and to make 3D objects on a panel, transformed Renaissance art. The fact is there really was a burst of creativity in the late 1400s that transformed things for the rest of time, with Leonardo being one of the leaders of that. So the fact that Da Vinci, Columbus and Gutenberg all existed in that period made that whole time one of exploration and new ways of conveying information.
I’ve just read a biography of Paul Dirac, the celebrated physicist. Do you think that legacy is the only blueprint for the test of a true genius? Do you think that the hidden people, that have laid the groundwork for much larger impacts, also deserve the praise and celebration?
Oh yeah, and I think Paul Dirac is not unknown; he was a great quantum theorist. There are probably examples of forgotten geniuses and they certainly should have biographies written about them.
Who would be a forgotten genius for you?
Ada Lovelace was very interesting for coming up with the concepts of general computing in the 1840s. I think that Max Planck was overshadowed by Einstein, but he is a genius I would like to read more about. There were lots more people in the Renaissance period as well.
The thing with Leonardo was that he was one of the friendliest people in history, and he had more pals than anyone you can imagine. Some of them are unheralded geniuses, like Luca Paccioli, a great mathematician who understood the visualisation of geometry and lead Leonardo to make some beautiful geometric drawings. So I love people in history like that, who collaborated with some of the better-known geniuses.
So why do we remember some individuals a certain way and not others? What traits did they have that allowed them to rise to the top would you say?
Einstein is remembered because he actually was the most important person in creating the two pillars of contemporary science, which is relativity theory and quantum theory. But he was also famous because he had this wild halo of hair and engaging eyes, his face looked like a movie casting of a genius. And you can do the thought experiment of had he looked like Niels Bohr or Max Planck, would he have been less famous? I think in Einstein’s case his fame is justified, but sometimes somebody brilliant looks like Niels Bohr, who is less distinctive, so maybe gets a little less publicity.
In some scientific circles, some would say that the proposition of a genius is under threat, that going into the future, where we are on the precipice of this new technological frontier, technology will surpass our human aspirations of being king of the hill. What do you think about the character of a genius being under threat in this way?
I think one thing that threatens the type of genius that I’m interested in is specialisation, that in order to be successful in a particular discipline these days you have to be focused rather than work across many disciplines. Sometimes specialists don’t make the same imaginative leaps as people who have a broad range of interests.
Another thing that might minimise the role of individual genius is that science, in particular, has become more collaborative. If you’re looking for gravity waves or gene editing technology, it’s not done by a loner in a lab but by hundreds of people working collaboratively in different places and sharing information. So that can hurt the ideal of the lone genius, but I think that’s a good thing.
“I think that we should realise that collaboration is a part of creativity, and we should not just glorify the loner.”
We’ve recently witnessed the passing of what was probably the world’s most contemporary genius, Steve Jobs. Would he fit in the same box as the other people you have highlighted in your work, with the same traits and qualities? They all capture something slightly different it seems.
Yeah, I think that all the people I have written about have very different personalities.
People ask what the secret is, or what model you have to follow, and I would say that Steve Jobs was very different from Benjamin Franklin, but they were each geniuses in their own way. There is no one model or set of traits, and that is why we get to write biographies as opposed to books on the set of traits you need to be a good creative leader. I don’t like books that try to tell you, “Here are the seven secrets to success.”
You worked in media for a long time, being the head of CNN and a Time editor. There are a lot of ways to answer this question but I’d love to get your thoughts on the health of media in America, given the bizarre circumstances that the country finds itself in today?
Well in some ways journalism is stronger than ever, with hundreds of different outlets on the Internet, talk radio, Twitter and Facebook. One problem is that the business model for deeply investigative journalism is broken at the moment because people don’t pay for content on the Internet the way they used to do at the newsstand or through subscriptions.
“I think that America has always had mood swings, and it’s going through a bad one right now.”
Secondly, I think that good journalism is under assault by ideological people who don’t make a distinction between intentionally fake stories made up by Russian trolls on the one hand, and on the other hand stories they might disagree with in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. The first category is fake news. The second category is just the different slants and biases of journalism that has existed throughout history. I don’t think we should make the mistake of equating a story in a newspaper we disagree with, with a manufactured lie made up by an Internet troll for nefarious purposes, and yet nowadays people are trying to equate the two types of stories.
You have worked in so many areas including politics, science, technology and the arts, I would love to know your opinion on the general direction that America itself is heading in?
I think that America has always had mood swings, and it’s going through a bad one right now. After World War II Einstein had moved to America when it was going through the period of McCarthyism and ‘Red Scares’. Einstein noticed that he had seen this before with the Nazis in Germany and the Communists in Europe, so he was afraid that America was going to fall over. Then two years later, after Eisenhower had gotten rid of Senator Joe McCarthy and the press had ridiculed some of the ‘Red Scares’, Einstein wrote to his son that American democracy was like a gyroscope, that just as soon as you feel like it’s going to fall over it has the ability to right itself. I believe that’s the case; I believe that America is looking wobbly at the moment but it has a magical ability to right itself, and it will do so.