Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy Touch Press Ipad. $13.99 Publisher site
Reviewed by Carl Zimmer
There's no point in beating around the bush. Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy is simply the best ebook about science that I have ever encountered. To me, it is the exemplar of what ebooks can be.
Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy comes from Touch Press, whose lavish apps we've reviewed before at Download the Universe (Gems, The Solar System, The Elements). I've personally toyed around with all three of those apps, and while they each offered a number of pleasures, each one felt limited in one way or the other. Gems, for example, lets you twirl diamonds and rubies, but, as Virginia Hughes noted in her review, it doesn't tell you much about them or about their place in human history. The Solar System, reviewed by Jennifer Ouellette, has some very impressive features for navigating among the planets, but Jennifer noted that it lacks a clear story.
Given this track record, I launched Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy expecting a good-looking but flawed production. No shortcomings came to light, so I tried looking for them. I looked hard. And I couldn't find any. Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy has everything I could ask for in an ebook about one of the greatest stories in the history of science: a pioneering work on anatomy that was lost for over four hundred years.
Living during the Renaissance, Leonardo's initial understanding of the human body came from ancient scholars like Galen and Aristotle. He was taught that animal spirits traveled through giant holes in the head and then flowed into the nerves. He was taught that blood was produced in the liver and then flowed outward to the ends of the body. One reason that these obviously wrong ideas persisted for over a thousand years was that medieval scholars did not conduct their own autopsies or experiments. Galen and and company had figured out everything there was to know about anatomy, so the best thing they could do was read, not conduct research.
With the Renaissance, that obedience began to crumble. Leonardo was the quintessential do-it-yourself-er. He conceived of new kinds vehicles and weapons; he investigated optics and geology. Wikipedia has set aside a separate page for a startling long list of his accomplishments.
Leonardo also became obsessed with human anatomy, and did not hestitate to make up his own mind about it. He dissected human cadavers. To figure out how the heart worked, he created a glass model of it. To probe the brain, he injected hot wax into the head of a freshly slaughtered ox.
As I wrote in my book Soul Made Flesh, Leonardo had a hard time breaking free from the old notions of how the body worked. When he discovered that the head did not contain three linked chambers, he couldn't break free from the old theory of animal spirits. He could not accept that perhaps the brain itself was responsible for thought. Likewise, although Leonardo discovered a valve in the aorta, he did recognize that blood circulates around the body, pumped by the heart. Nevertheless, his drawings were the greatest anatomical works that existed in his time. Not only were they anatomically correct, but they displayed his artistic mastery.
Leonardo actually came close to publishing a textbook of anatomy while he was living in Milan, but battles in 1511 drove him from the city and he never quite managed to finish it before his death in 1519. Instead, his drawings remained hidden away until the twentieth century.
Today, the Royal Collection is unveiling the largest ever exhibition of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings at The Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace. They also teamed up with Touch Press to create an app based on the show. All the members of the team brought their A game to this undertaking. Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy contains a richly informative narrative about the artist's hidden career as an anatomist, written by Martin Clayton, Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Royal Collection. It is illustrated elegantly with Leonardo's drawings, as well as interactive images of human anatomy as we know it now. You can see for yourself just how good his drawings of the heart or uterus were. You can turn arms to see how well Leonardo appreciated the body's biomechanics.
These components are copious but never intruding. And they always answer the question raised in the reader's mind by the text. Videos from historians and scientists end each chapter--usually I hate these features, but in Leonardo, the talking heads actually have something to say.
The app also contains Leonardo's notebooks themselves. The interface for this part is nothing short of brilliant. You can search through the pages by organ or system. Each page is presented in its original state, scanned to exquisite resolution. Tap the screen, and the app instantly translates the inscrutable notes Leonardo scribbled by his drawings. Each page is also annotated with useful explanations of what Leonardo was contemplating with each image.
Three decades after Leonardo's death, Andreas Vesalius published Fabrica, which has long been considered the first modern work of anatomy. Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy demonstrates that Fabrica was not the only masterpiece of the body to come out of the Renaissance. Not many ebooks can claim such achievements.
Carl Zimmer writes frequently about science for the New York Times and is the author of 13 books, including A Planet of Viruses