Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays by Stephen Jay Gould

By Stephen Jay Gould

Along with his normal brilliance, Gould examines the puzzles and paradoxes nice and small that construct nature’s and humanity’s range and order.

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Extra resources for Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History

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Leonardo stood alone and above, we are told over and over again, because he combined his unparalleled genius with a thoroughly modern methodology based on close observation and clever experiment. He could therefore overcome the ignorance and lingering sterile scholasticism of his own times. For example, the “Introductory Note” in the official catalog for a recent exhibition of the Leicester Codex in New York summarizes the basis of Leonardo’s success in these words: “In it [the codex] we can begin to see how he combined almost superhuman powers of observation with an understanding of the importance of experimentation.

L e o n a r d o ’s m o u n t a i n o f c l a m s a n d t h e d i e t o f w o r m s Leonardo uses these two drawings (on the right-hand side of his sketch) to show that when two objects (representing the hemispheres of the earth in his general argument) are the same weight, the vertical line (representing the center of gravity) falls directly between them. When the two objects are of different weights, the vertical line lies within the heavier object, which then forces the lighter object to rise (as the lighter hemisphere of the earth must rise).

Leonardo reserved his choicest invective for what he regarded as the lingering magical content of this Neoplatonic theory of signs and signatures (although the issue remained alive—and quite lively—within Western science until the late seventeenth century. The Mundus subterraneus [1664] of 27 l e o n a r d o ’s m o u n t a i n o f c l a m s a n d t h e d i e t o f w o r m s the great Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher represents the last seriously cogent defense of the Neoplatonic position). Leonardo writes: And if you should say that these shells have been and still constantly are being created in such places as these by the nature of the locality and through the potency of the heavens in those spots, such an opinion cannot exist in brains possessed of any extensive powers of reasoning because the years of their growth are numbered upon the outer coverings of their shells [observation 9 again]; and both small and large ones may be seen, and these would not have grown without feeding or feed without movement, and here [that is, in solid rock] they would not be able to move .

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