Perspectives on Learning

These articles all relate to looking at what others have done with their education.

Cool Things You Can Do with a Math Degree

June 2010

This is the third in a series of articles looking at interesting jobs you can get with different university degrees. This month we interviewed Hugh Thompson at the Centre of the Universe in BC.

Hugh Thompson

  • Systems Research Engineer, NRC Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics
  • Bachelors of Applied Science in Engineering

Educational Background

I have scientific parents: my dad’s a mathematician and my mom’s a bio-chemist. I think I had a slightly unusual childhood in that I just assumed that everybody went to university for ages and did lots of degrees and became professors. My brother and sister did those things, so I thought I would do that too and be a famous scientist.

I always loved building things as a kid. In that sense I probably always wanted to be an engineer, I just didn’t know what it was called back then. I built a remote controlled propeller boat when I was young. I also built a telescope as a teenager. I didn’t build things from kits, but eventually I did succumb to using plans with the telescope because I didn’t get too far with my original scheme from scratch. I loved Lego, Capsella and Lego-Technixs – that stuff was awesome. With it I built a car that had working cylinders and a working drive train so you could shift gears. That taught me a lot about engineering.

I always liked math. By the time I was in university I wasn’t always that great at it anymore since I was so busy. There were so many courses it was hard to keep on top of it.

Math is a funny thing. You can be really good at it, but you can still do really badly. It’s all just stepping stones – every step built on what has gone before. No matter how good you are at math intuitively, if you miss one of the steps, you’re done. You have to know all the smaller bits to do the next bit. I don’t think people appreciate this.

I did Engineering Physics – it’s sort of a combined major between math, physics and engineering. It’s a bit longer than most engineering degrees. It took me six years since I started in science in first year then transferred into Engineering Physics, which is a five year program.

I enjoyed university. I had some courses I really enjoyed. I was definitely too much of a slacker, though. I met people who started out doing something and then went back to school – they were more motivated. In some ways I think I wasn’t quite as motivated as I could have been.

Working History

After university, my first job was in a pulp and paper research centre. I didn’t enjoy smelly wood pulp: stirring it up and doing experiments on it. One afternoon, someone I worked with said his mom taught ESL in Korea and was looking for other teachers. So I taught ESL in Korea for a couple of years and that was very fun.

Then I worked for an ocean engineering consultant when I got back. I helped write proposals for things like underwater metal detectors and hockey puck dropping machines. It was a bit varied.

At that time I was keen on oceanography. I felt I ought to find out if I liked being on ships at sea. I knew of a Dutch head hunting company who looked for hydrographic surveyors around the world so I sent my resume off to them.

The Dutch company got back to me and the job I had was just ending, so I flew to the U.K. and took an offshore oil rig safety-training course which was really fun – with firefighting, burning buildings, jumping into life rafts and all kinds of crazy stuff.

I started working on a huge ship off of China. That was the most unbelievable on-the-job training. They were paying me a lot of money per day and I had zero skills necessary to do this job. Everyday I was supposed to be producing charts of the sea floor and where the pipeline was – all this important information. So I learned very quickly. I ended up doing that for about two years – all over the world – the Philippines, the North Sea.

Then I got a job in Richmond as a spacecraft engineer. I knew nothing about spacecraft, but it was a mechanical engineering job. Even so, they went out on a limb to hire me. They didn’t pay me much to start with, but I turned out to be quite good at it and ended up working there for 8 years.

I started out doing thermal modeling of spacecraft. I also did some mechanical and structural modeling of spacecraft. Eventually I was the “Payload Engineer” for a set of five satellites. The payload was an optical payload and I was always interested in telescopes and astronomy, so through that I learned more about optics. The telescopes were being built in Germany and I worked in Germany for two years. (This is basically the heartland of optics on the planet.) That was a very interesting place to live and work, and I learned a lot. Then I saw a job to work on this thirty-meter telescope project in Victoria. I actually happened to have experience in what they were looking for which was systems engineering.

Mostly I do things like writing requirements and figuring out how we will check that we can meet them. We have a plan for the whole observatory so we make a list of all the things it needs to be able to do, like: work so many days per year; withstand a certain size of earthquake; have certain optical abilities. Then we need to translate this into what the subsystems have to do. (What does it mean for someone building an instrument that will be mounted on the telescope.)

This is going to be the largest telescope in the world. In terms of resolution, we’ll be able to see things that are 40 kilometres across at the distance of Jupiter (or closer to home this is like seeing a loonie in Calgary from Victoria). But we also plan to look much further, and the further away we can see, the further back in time we are looking. The idea is to look back to the beginning of time, when stars were first forming. As an engineering project it is unbelievable to build a telescope that really is just a layer less than one micron-thick of silver or aluminum, supported in this perfect shape, over 30 meters, on a mountaintop, in the wind. How on earth do you do that? We’ve divided it up into 492 hexagonal segments of glass, each 1.4 meters across and 50 mm thick, which have to move and relate to each other within nanometers. When I tilt this telescope up, for example, I need to compensate for the pull of gravity on the shape of this 30 meter surface. It’s all really interesting to me.

Advice for Students

Math is totally awesome. I think it’s well worth getting a good understanding of the fundamentals of math. It’s really easy to go from higher level understanding to more applied. It’s a lot harder to go the other way. If you know how lots of math works, you can always apply that to lots of different sciences and lots of different fields. If you know how plumbing fittings work, for example, you can’t apply that to how math or other sciences work.

Co-op terms and any opportunities you have to see science in action are so motivating that you have to take them.

There’s a lot to be said for picking up a couple of marketable skills. In engineering, often this is new computer tools which are actually quite easy to learn. Companies always need people who can run these programs and you can get a decent paying job on the bottom floor doing something quite interesting.

Be a little careful not to just get these skills and stay there your whole life.

I was always too chicken to get involved with a club. I always felt I didn’t know enough to join clubs. You’ve got to just get involved and try. There are things like engineering groups that build cars that they race. You’ve got to do as many of those as you possibly can get involved with.

One of the things that helped me was setting up engineering challenges for high school students when I was in university. Tutoring also motivated me. I needed to be able to understand math at a decent level in order to be able to teach it.

Use the things that you’re learning by teaching or building things. Volunteer for professors who need help.

I always feel like, “As long as I’m learning, I’m happy.” If my job is paying me to learn new things, I’ll keep doing my job. If my job isn’t helping me to learn, I’ll just go back to school.

In general be keen, and let people know you are keen, it may not be cool, but it’s very important to teachers and employers.

”Nobody succeeds beyond his or her wildest expectations unless he or she begins with some wild expectations.”
Ralph Charell, American author

Cool Things You Can Do with a Science Degree

April 2010

This is the first in a series of articles looking at interesting jobs you can get with different university degrees. This month, we’ve talked with two scientists. Both men offer interesting perspectives on their educational backgrounds, their present work, and advice for students.

James Elphick

  • Environmental Scientist, Registered Professional Biologist
  • President, Nautilus Environmental
  • Bachelors of Science in Biology, minor in Environmental Toxicology

Educational Background

I went to high school in England. The subjects I majored in were mathematics, biology and economics. I chose these subjects because I liked them and was good at them.

I knew people who were doing economics (an uncle), and all of my family did biology-based jobs (my dad is a doctor; mom is a nurse; and my sister a physiotherapist). So, it also seemed natural to take these courses. What I chose was a bit of an unusual mix because the courses weren’t all pure sciences.

At university, I liked some classes, and not others, based on how well the professors taught, and the course content. I found some courses challenging and interesting, but others were mainly memorization. I didn’t like chemistry or lab work, but it was something I had to take, although now I like these a lot. Chemistry is the part of my degree I find that I use the most and now I find that it fascinates me. At the time it wasn’t something I particularly liked.

I did a co-op program in University which I think was excellent. I’d really recommend it. For one thing, you get help with getting jobs in summer (even if they’re maybe not as highly paid as you might hope). And I think what was really useful was getting to do different jobs for four months at a time: just getting to experience what it’s like. I worked for a semester at the Department of Fisheries, at the university, and at an environmental consultant company – then I subsequently got hired by that company. I’ve basically stayed in the field ever since.

Present Work

Nautilus is a small business with 12 employees. We have a laboratory. The focus is on evaluating environmental toxicity: measuring if there are effects caused by discharges from industry.

We work mostly for industry: mines and pulp mills, for example. We’re hired to evaluate whether or not they’re causing environmental effects. We monitor the actual receiving environment on their site, or test effluents or samples from their site, to see if they are safe.

In evaluating contaminated sites, we select samples and then conduct tests with invertebrates like amphipods or polychaetes (ex. tube worms) in the samples, and monitor their growth, survival and reproduction. We then write a report concluding whether the sediment is within acceptable safety standards or if there is an
environmental risk.

Sometimes we conduct monitoring projects, like for operating mines, where we measure the fish and invertebrate populations in the environment. We can determine causes of environmental toxicity and they can figure out how to improve it.

We are also involved in risk assessments with existing contaminated sites, which are often in marine ports. Here we do studies to investigate the risk of existing contamination. We help with decision-making on the degree of risk (how biologically significant the contaminant is) and suggest possibly removing the contaminated mud or capping it with clean sediment.

Basically we assess environmental risks and how to deal with contamination, helping to prioritize efforts and to make the world a cleaner place. Here chemistry and biology intersect.

I use a fair bit of what I learned in school and refer to my old textbooks occasionally. My university studies help me to know where to look for things and to be able to, fairly quickly, understand a process, set a methodology and analyze results.

Advice for Students

You don’t really know, until you try something, whether you’re well-suited for it. Personally, I didn’t like lab work in university, now I like it most.

Be open to learning new things. Recognize what motivates you (in anything you’re doing), what challenges you, and find a career that makes use of that.

Ultimately you want to be doing something that motivates you and that you get some positive response from so you’ll actually enjoy it and feel that you’re learning from it.

I just love getting data that leads to an understanding of the relationships between things. Seeing results and coming to an understanding, that ‘eureka’ moment, is something that I really enjoy and get a lot from. It happens enough in my work that it keeps me interested in what I’m doing.


Bodo de Lange Boom

  • Engineering Project Supervisor, Canadian Hydrographic Service
  • Masters of Science in Physics, specializing in Oceanography

Educational Background
I didn’t take a linear path, but I’ve always been interested in science. Actually, when I was in high school I never would have guessed I’d end up doing what I’m doing today.

In high school I took the ‘technical program’. In addition to academic courses, it covered things like: drafting, electricity, electronics, automotive, machine shop, sheet metal, etc. It was like trades training, but oriented toward
students going on to college or university, to give them a background in these various topics.

While in high school I became interested in astronomy, so when I went to university, I started out studying astronomy. After my first year, I got a summer job at the Nanaimo Biological Station working for a physical oceanographer. As a result I developed an interest in oceanography. I continued with astronomy, but chose my courses to give me the flexibility to switch degrees. In my fourth year, I switched to physics and completed my degree in physics.

I went directly into a masters program after my BSc. As I was finishing my master’s thesis, I took a job with the Beaufort Sea Project. I was hired to work on physical oceanography in the Beaufort Sea: doing things like measuring currents, water properties (like temperature and salinity as a function of depth) and studying ice motion.

The work I did on the Beaufort Sea Project was fairly practical, hands-on sort of work. So both the university training for the oceanography aspect but also the hands-on type of skills I learned in high school came in very useful in terms of preparing equipment for the Arctic survey work. My outdoors experience came in handy when we were working out of camps in the Arctic (whether camped on the ice or on land).

Through the projects I did then and later, I worked on all of Canada’s coasts, even quite a bit of Arctic work – so it was all quite interesting.

Present Work

Now the area I focus on is hydrographic data management. Working for the Canadian Hydrographic Service, we’re responsible for providing the navigation charts for Canada, the tide and current tables, and publications like the Sailing Directions. All kinds of vessels and boats, including submarines use the charts.

My work is related to oceanography but it’s not directly oceanography. While there’s an overlap, most of the people who are working this field have a background in geomatics (i.e. measuring the earth), geography or surveying.

Our focus is primarily on mapping the ocean. Although above-surface features are important to help mariners safely navigate (things like lights, buoys, heights of land, that sort of thing), just as important is the under-water portion: where the water is shallow, where the safe navigation channels are, what the water is doing, what the tide level is. A rock that might be perfectly safe to cross over at high tide may be exposed at low tide.

More and more the people using our data are not navigators – they might be scientists doing research, engineers doing either on-shore or off-shore construction projects. An example is for alternate electricity generation projects that use tidal or wave energy.

Our data are also being used for computer modeling: simulating tides and currents or tsunami propagation and run up. Particularly for tsunami modeling, the water depth needs to be known in quite a lot of detail.

Advice for Students

Follow your interests and passion. That certainly has worked very well for me. When I first went to university, it was suggested I go into chemistry, which did not interest me as much. I’m glad I stuck with astronomy at the start and later followed my interest in oceanography.

Also, learn as much as you can both academically and practically. That’s something that has stood me in good stead both in terms of the hands-on experience I gained in shop courses I took in high school and later in summer jobs when I got involved in computer programming. Getting wide experience is important because jobs do change, as might a person’s own interests. This gives much more flexibility in terms of what you can do.

Cool Things You Can Do with an Arts Degree

May 2010

This is the second in a series of articles looking at interesting jobs you can get with different university degrees. This month we interviewed Mark Hornell with the City of Victoria and Dr. Robert Griffin at the Royal BC Museum.

Mark Hornell

  • Assistant Director of Community Planning, City of Victoria
  • Bachelors of Geography, Masters of Regional Planning, Certificate in Urban Design

Educational Background

For me, as a kid, I thrived on National Geographic magazines and looking at atlases, creating imaginary island societies, drawing, history, architecture, and being in the outdoors. There was a lot of family discussion of wildlife and animals, habitats, and landscapes.

Quite honestly, at the end of my high school years I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I ended up working at a pulp mill and realized that wasn’t what I wanted.
I did two years of university transfer courses at a community college before transferring to university. I don’t regret taking courses at college at all. The quality of instruction and the capacity to have relationships with your teachers there was as high as anywhere I’ve seen.

I saw geography as a way to keep my options open and allow me to do something that would cover as many of the bases of my interests as possible and wouldn’t force me into specializing too much.

For the first year, my course selection was pretty well all science courses, then the 2nd year was all arts. I was doing that deliberately because I saw it as important as a geographer to have a broad scope.

I enjoyed university a lot. For me it was a hugely formative experience. It was an opening up of the world for me then.

After my Bachelors, I got a job as a planning technician. I was able to try to apply what I had learned in university. I found it useful because it helped me to figure out what my interests were and where I wanted to go from there. Then I travelled for a year after that.

The travel capped it off for me. It gave me a chance to actually go to museums and see the art I had been reading about, walk the streets of cities I’d studied in university, negotiate transit systems in London, immersing myself in what had been book learning and theoretical up to that point for me.

Geography is a bridging discipline. It kind of bridges the arts and the sciences. Geography provides an awareness that there are a variety of points of view and ways of looking at a place, and you have to synthesize all of that together to get a fuller understanding of what you’re going to do.

Present Work

I manage a staff of 7. We develop urban policy for the city of Victoria. The big one we’re working on right now is the “Official Community Plan” which is the city master plan with a 30-year time frame.

City Planners hopefully pull something together that has benefit for people. We work with engineers and collaborate with other folks to synthesize the overall policy framework for the development of the city. The new downtown plan that will be coming out in the next month, looks at the physical, social, and economic development of the city, primarily with a spatial component to it. It’s talking about how the city develops as a physical place for people to meet their needs and aspirations. It has to be socially integrated, it has to have an economic base that allows people to thrive and meet their needs, and it needs to have the physical ‘place’ component to it that can support all of that.

I spend most of my time providing mentoring and coaching advice to the staff that is actually working on those projects. I’m a member of the management team of the city, so I’m involved in the other corporate policy stuff in one way or another.

Advice for Students

Try to pursue as omnivorous an education as possible.

Figure out what it is that really engages your imagination, that gets you excited, that you’re passionate about and try to find a way to study that more and if you are able to translate that into paid employment, so much the better.

Travel as much as you can.

Develop an ability to express yourself – graphically as well as verbally. Being nimble on your feet in response to questions is a critical skill. Be able to clearly articulate what the issue is, what the options are and what some possible solutions might be.
The more you read the better writer you’ll be.

Those are probably the two most important things that students can develop through university: the capacity to confidently stand up and talk to people and to really become a good writer.

If you find yourself interested in maps, natural environment, cities, and reading about places, geography is a good choice for you because it will allow you to pursue those interests in a structured way that will result in a degree at the end.


Dr. Robert Griffin

  • Manager, Human History, Royal BC Museum
  • BA History, MA History, PhD History

Educational Background

I’ve always been a collector and accumulator. As I child, I collected anything and everything. The classes that interested me in high school were history and geography, so I started with history at university.
I loved much of my schooling, but I disliked high school intensely. I found it far too regimented. Once I got to university, things opened up for me. I liked the freedom to pick and choose what I wanted to do. I liked to be able to work independently proposing projects to my professors and, if they agreed, doing semi-independent projects and papers.

When I finished my BA, the opportunity came up and I took a summer job in the History Section at the Royal BC Museum (then the BC Provincial Museum). I worked here for two summers and became interested in museum work.

I went directly into an MA after completing my BA. While I was in the program I managed to get a job at another museum – the BC Forest Museum.

I came to the Royal BC Museum (RBCM) as collections manager. At that time it was mostly on the job training; there weren’t any museum studies programs.

I’d always wanted to do a PhD, but I was already working full-time at the museum. It took longer to do than if I’d just gone to university for three years since I was working almost full-time while trying to do research and do my dissertation. In the end, it took me 9 years to complete it (partly because I like accumulating information but sitting down to write it out isn’t as much fun for me).

Present Work

I do a bit of history and a lot of administration. Basically what I’m responsible for is British Columbia’s human history collections at the RBCM (but not our natural history).

Our main focus is to preserve and maintain. We have a representative collection of what British Columbians used in their everyday lives, at work, at home or at play.

We get into some difficult decisions around what should be preserved. When we’re looking at preserving objects and data, we’re not simply looking at preserving and displaying for today’s audience. We need to consider how to preserve historical objects and data for future audiences as well.

So, for example, we’re involving the museum, in cold storage – freezing film and tapes to protect them against disintegration.

You can’t be a specialist in a museum – you need to know all kinds of things. I get to do a lot of different things: public programs, presentations, talks, research, putting together ideas behind exhibits, deciding what’s preserved for BC history (with consultation, of course). I collaborate with people and together we put our ideas together into physical form.

I do the typical work of an administrator: work plans, policies, procedures, but my first love is research and organizing collections.

Advice for Students

You have to try something to see if you like it. Go to university, and take courses and see how you feel about them.

The broader the person, the better. Develop a broad range of interests, then you can choose what you want to focus in on.

To do well, you need to study and have good work habits. You need to be willing to read and remember what you’ve read. Also, you need to learn to write – to present information to people.

It’s very beneficial to learn how to work in a team – to hold one’s own in a group – anyone can cultivate these skills if they want to.

If you have an interest in objects, history or research, you may enjoy a career in museums. To see if it interests you, volunteer at a small museum so you can get a variety of experience. Join organizations, like local history societies, and talk to people. There are publications on old homes in Victoria, see if that kind of thing interests you. Or, you could look into the Hallmark Society in Victoria for more about preserving historical and architectural landmarks. If you like working with paper, visit the BC Archives. And, the annual Historica fair is a project-based event for students that you might like to get involved in.

Basically, figure out what kinds of things you like to do. Then, give some things a try to see if you really do like them or not.

Great Thinkers: Einstein (1879 – 1955)

by Dahlia Miller
November 2010

This is the first of two articles on great thinkers. In each article, we look at some interesting details about the life of a historical thinker who changed the way we look at the world. This month’s article focuses on Albert Einstein as a young boy and teenager.

Many factors come together to form a great mind. Nature and nurture are both at play. There are definite clues to Einstein’s genius as a child, and, at the same time, we can trace how the people and circumstances in his youth helped to encourage the development of his mind.

We all know of the great thinker that Einstein became, but some circumstances of his growth and history you may not know.

The Dopey One’

Einstein was slow to develop in many ways, and was labelled ‘der Depperte’ (the dopey one), by the family maid.

He began to speak some time after two years of age. He had a mild form of echolalia: whenever he wanted to say something as a young child, he would first whisper the words softly to himself before speaking them aloud. This trait followed him into adulthood and he would often repeat phrases that he found interesting or funny two or three times to himself.

Einstein believed his slow verbal development gave him the opportunity to explore the world without mental labels. His main form of conceptualization seems to have been through mental imagery. These days, we would likely call him a ‘visual-picture’ learner: he thought in pictures and had a vivid imagination. He would put things into words only after he had fully pictured them.

This learning style leant itself to his propensity for ‘Thought Experiments’ (like imagining what it might be like to ride a bicycle alongside a beam of light, or what it might feel like to be in an elevator in outer space that was rising rapidly – this thought experiment lead him to his theories of special relativity).

Perhaps because of his slow verbal development, all through his life, Einstein saw things as through the eyes of a child, and wondered about them. He never stopped being awed by nature, gravity, motion, and light. This curiousity left him free to play with physics and math like a child.

The Outsider

Though both his parents were Jewish, Einstein’s first school was a Catholic one. He was accepted at school, but was often teased on his way home. Being part of the 2% of Jewish people living in Munich in the late 1800’s was perhaps not an easy position to be in for a young boy.

The family backyard was often noisy with the play of many cousins and other children, but although Einstein enjoyed making friends, he often played by himself. He played with puzzles and built elaborate structures, and he loved to build houses of cards (his younger sister, Maja, claimed that he was able to construct 14-story card houses).

He was persistent, tenacious and sometimes prone to temper tantrums as a boy. (Once when he was five, he threw a chair at his tutor.) In fact, his rebelliousness toward authority was a trait that influenced his interactions at school and all through his life. Leading him to claim with his hallmark wit, “To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself.”

Influential Gifts

When he was about 4 or 5 years old and sick in bed, Einstein’s father gave him a compass. The young boy was thrilled to witness the effects of an invisible power that moved the compass needle. He later wrote and reflected on the depth of impact this gift had on him.

The same awe that young Einstein felt in witnessing the compass needle drove his work in field theories throughout his life: he sought to describe the nature of the force behind things and how objects that appear to be separate are connected and will affect each other. He had hoped to find a unified field theory to fully describe the interconnectedness of the world around us (even scribbling notes on his deathbed).

Einstein’s mom was a pianist and she arranged violin lessons for young Einstein. At first he complained at the mechanical discipline. But after hearing Mozart’s sonatas, he fell in love with music, beauty and simplicity. Soon he began playing Mozart duets with his mother.

He found that music helped him to think – all through his life, when he came to roadblocks in his work, he’d pick up the violin and play. In playing, he’d find an answer, or some new perspective would bubble up.

Around age 12, over summer, his parents bought him math texts and he enjoyed himself by solving the applied arithmetic problems, then trying to find new theories to prove the equations.

Around this time, Einstein’s uncle introduced him to algebra, describing it as a ‘merry science’. He asked Einstein to solve and prove the Pythagorean Theorem; having to solve it on his own deepened Einstein’s understanding of geometry.

He marveled at how complexities could be described with simple equations and so was encouraged to seek out simple explanations for the seeming complexities of nature.

When he was a young teen, Einstein’s family hosted a medical student for dinner once a week. This medical student brought Einstein science books including People’s Book on Natural Science in 21 volumes.

Einstein read ‘with breathless attention’ as the author demonstrated interrelations between biology and physics, and described the science experiments being done at that time in Germany. The author asked readers to use their imaginations, for example asking readers to picture speeding along on a train and how if a bullet was shot through one window and out another, it would look like the bullet had turned an angle.

This author was undoubtedly influential both in Einstein’s later use of thought experiments and his development of the theory of relativity as a young adult.

Many factors in Einstein’s childhood and youth played into creating the scientist and great thinker that he became. His natural tendencies, the people around him, and the influences they introduced into his life all lent a supportive hand in encouraging his development.

“I thank all those who have gone before me and all those who make it possible for me to do the work I do.”
Albert Einstein

Isaacson, Walter. 2007. Einstein: His Life & Universe. Toronto: Simon & Schuster.

Great Thinkers: da Vinci (1452-1519)

by Dahlia Miller
December 2010

This is the second of two articles on great thinkers. In each article, we look at some interesting details about the life of a historical thinker who changed the way we look at the world. This month’s article focuses on Leonardo da Vinci

Pushing the Boundaries

Leonardo daVinci is the ultimate model of a man who stretched and flexed his brain’s capabilities for creativity and original ideas. He is best known for his paintings (the ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Last Supper’), but he was more than an artist. He was also an architect, musician, engineer, scientist and inventor.

Da Vinci had a relentless curiousity and impulse to investigate. He wanted to find out all there was to know; to think new thoughts and bring new things into being.
His quest for universal knowledge through observation, speculation and experimentation, lay the groundwork for future studies in many fields. In fact, he sketched the first parachute, first helicopter, first airplane, first tank, first repeating rifle, swinging bridge, paddle boat and first motor car, and he made observations that changed how we think about many, many subjects.

Da Vinci lived during the Renaissance, when people were looking again to ncient writers, philosophers, poets and artists for wisdom and inspiration. At the same time, assumptions were being

questioned and rules broken. Da Vinci was born right at the time that the printing press was invented; he was 40 years old when Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas. This was a time of new thinking and a new-found respect for beauty and humanity.

Da Vinci loved challenging accepted notions and assumptions. He pushed the boundaries of what was known, opening himself to his pure observations of the natural world around him.

“The mind of a painter should be like a mirror which always takes the colour of the thing it reflects, and which is filled by as many images as there are things placed before it.”
da Vinci

Not an Ordinary Child

As a boy, Leonardo was endlessly curious about the natural world – water, animals, light. He’d dissect dead animals and systematically experiment, interchanging their parts and drawing his hideous creations. His love of the scientific method was apparent even in his play as a child.

Since he was an illegitimate child, da Vinci didn’t have a formal grammar school education. Though being illegitimate wasn’t considered shameful at the time, it impacted his access to formal education. He wasn’t taught Greek or Latin (and most books were written in Greek or Latin at the time). Perhaps being excluded from studying the past helped him to develop his openness to novel ideas. He learned by observation more than following the teachings of the past.

Da Vinci was schooled in reading, writing and math in preparation for an apprenticeship in a trade (artists were considered trades people at the time). He was then apprenticed in the workshop of the sculptor-goldsmith-painter, Verrocchio, who trained many of Florence’s young artists.

After a few years into his apprenticeship, da Vinci was assigned to paint an angel in one of Verrocchio’s artworks, the ‘Baptism of Christ’. Rather than using the customary egg tempura paint which was challenging to work with, da Vinci chose to use oil paints which were relatively unknown at the time. The results showed his brilliance in technique as well as artistic ability. After seeing da Vinci’s work on the angel, Verrocchio put down his brush, vowing never to paint again.

Seeking To Know It All

“Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses – especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
da Vinci

Da Vinci brought science and art together. He felt that artists should be adept at mathematics and geometry so as to accurately demonstrate perspective in their art (depth, relationships between objects). A pen and ink sketch from when he was 21 years old demonstrates his understanding of the degradation of light with distance (physics), his awareness of rock formations (geology) and his eye for detail.

He started keeping journals when he was 37 years old. Totaling about 15-20,000 pages, these notes express his questioning and exploration of life. They were unedited outpourings – a mixture of observations about the world around him: theories, drawings, observations and ideas.

He didn’t limit himself in his notebooks (not even with punctuation) and instead looked for how things may be connected in novel ways. These notebooks demonstrate a restlessness in da Vinci’s thinking. The pages are a jumble of ideas and lines of inquiry, jumping from topic to topic: anatomy, botany, optics, architecture, astronomy, military engineering, aerodynamics, music, painting, flight, costume design, robotics and more.

Being left-handed, he found an interesting solution to smudged ink in his writing. He used ‘mirror’ writing. Though da Vinci was writing in Italian which reads right to left like English, his journals were written from left to right as though written in a mirror, with all the letters backwards.

Da Vinci was relentlessly curious. He asked himself questions about the world around him and attempted to answer them – questions like, ‘How do birds fly?’ In fact, his interest and life-long study of birds led him to a fascination with aerodynomics and flight.

Another characteristic which was foundational to the exploration of da Vinci’s genius was his extreme willingness to move into the unknown with confidence.

As a young man, da Vinci applied to Ludovico Sforza in Milan wanting a position at court as an engineer. In his portfolio, da Vinci had drawn the plans for many military inventions: light portable bridges, naval vessels, tunneling machines, tanks. He claimed to be an architect and a military engineer though to date he’d produced only paintings and sculptures.

What made this man such a genius? Perhaps it was that he didn’t limit the extent of his interests and natural talents. In fact, he seemed to allow his mind to roam over any and all topics that caught his imagination.

The thing that impresses me the most about da Vinci is his relentless pursuit for universal knowledge. He felt that we ought to seek out and recognize the interconnectedness of nature and the reality around us. He investigated the world around him with a fervency and passion and became an expert in a wide range of fields.

What might happen if you gave yourself the license to explore the world and the creative reaches of your imagination in the same way that Da Vinci did?

Atalay, Bulent & Keith Wamsley. 2008. Leonardo’s Universe: The Renaissance World of Leonardo da Vinci. Washington: National Geographic.