You expect discovery at a place called the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center. However, what you uncover there is usually unexpected and far more fulfilling than anticipated.
The current headlining exhibit, “Da Vinci: Machines and Robotics,” is drawing to a close. Come May 15, it will be gone and with it a chance for Mobilians to see manifestations of legendary genius.
More than the namesake of an Oscar winner and a teenage mutant ninja turtle, Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most famous polymaths in European history. Although chiefly remembered as one of European culture’s most renowned painters, he was equally as interested in sculpture, literature, architecture, music, mathematics, engineering, anatomy, geology, astronomy and history.
This epitome of the quintessential Renaissance man left the world astounded and mystified, particularly as his scientific nature has received more focus in the last century. His genius seemed unparalleled, his vision from another era.
A decade back, physicist Luigi Rizzo combined forces with the Niccolai family to form Teknoart with the goal of bringing Leonardo’s inventions and ideas to fruition. Employing local craftsmen and Renaissance-specific materials, they constructed models and full-scale versions of the devices outlined in copious notes and codices.
Yet it’s not all gears and gizmos in the Exploreum. Reproductions of Leonardo’s paintings adorn the walls. One of the first things encountered is a sizable version of “The Last Supper.”
“Now I always use this to point out to touring students about [Leonardo’s] love of numbers and mathematics,” tour guide Wes Burton said as he gestured at the scene of Jesus and his apostles. “There’s the three windows behind Jesus, the apostles all in groups of three.”
Burton noted the employment of polygonal rectangles on the table and other particulars that haunted Leonardo da Vinci’s ever-busy brain. He smiled when conjuring young visitors’ invariable questions about the Da Vinci Code.
Naturally, the beginning of the exhibit is replete with a troubled yet persistent mark of humanity: tools of warfare. Leonardo’s engineering skills were famous and, like creatives before and since, patronage paid the way for pursuit of purer passions.
Leonardo had a knack for building on existing knowledge. Machines like his trench excavator used known principles in ingenious ways. He also took cues from nature as a turtle provided the inspiration for an armored war tank while a scorpion was the model for a war boat that could lash out at opposing vessels.
Hyrdraulic drills and sawmills, paddleboats, water-walking skis, an Archimedes screw, portable bridges (including one with tool-free assembly), a spring-powered car, they’re all present. Designs for a precursor to scuba equipment and a life preserver are testimony to his prescience.
So is Leonardo’s fascination with flight. His famous helicopter antecedent — an aerial screw — is on display along with his parachute. Across from it sits his ornithopter while a version of a hang glider looms overhead. Leonardo was apparently centuries ahead of his time in understanding ratios of wing surface to weight in determining life coefficients.
There’s a wood-built bicycle that employs a unique chain design. A set of tongs that increases grip in proportion to the weight of an object are shown with other civil machines utilizing series of gears and pulleys.
Perhaps most extraordinary are examples of Leonardo’s robotics. A mechanical lion he built for a visiting royal dignitary was said to have entered the room, reared onto its back legs and then opened along its underside to litter the floor with lily blooms.
Another design for a robotic knight belies Leonardo’s cadaver dissections and unrivaled understanding of the human body. It explains why roboticist Mark Rosheim followed the plans and constructed a 2002 prototype that walked and waved.
Yet as I watched a Baton Rouge school group teem through the exhibit, a cluster of young teens predictably vying for selfies with “The Mona Lisa,” I discovered something else. It was evident on my guide’s face.
When asked, Burton explained his previous job with Goldman Sachs in New York, teaching the wealthy about financial investment. Personal causes brought him home to Mobile.
“I would have never thought I would have been here doing this but I’m glad I am,” Burton said. “This is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.”
Almost on cue, a youngster stopped him — “You were one of our instructors at science camp!” — and extended her hand. Delight bubbled up in her enthusiasm.
After years at the Exploreum, Burton is moving on to another town but sticking with the field. His personal post-financial career discovery guides his way.
Come mid-May, the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit gets crated and departs for its Mediterranean home. The chance for Mobilians to drink in genius at the science center at the foot of Government Street and find their own breakthrough will leave with it.
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