Newton Who? Leonardo Explored Gravity First 

A scientific study published at the beginning of the month confirms that the understanding of gravity long predates Sir Isaac Newton’s observation of a falling apple in the 1660s. An analysis of diagrams drawn in Leonardo da Vinci’s personal notebook, the “Codex Arundel” (c. 1478), found that the Renaissance artist developed a near-accurate model that acknowledged Earth’s gravitational pull as a form of acceleration. The study is included in the February 23 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Leonardo.

According to a statement issued by the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), professor Morteza (Mory) Gharib first noticed the diagrams illuminating Leonardo’s gravitational experiments in the “Codex Arundel” in 2017 while he was examining the artist’s flow visualizations for a graduate course he led. On page 143, Gharib picked up on one of three right isosceles triangles that depicted a pitcher moving along a straight path that was parallel to the ground, pouring either droplets or granules in a diagonal line that made up the triangle’s hypotenuse.

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Gharib consulted with former postdoctoral CalTech research fellow Chris Roh and professor Flavio Noca from the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland to analyze and translate Leonardo’s notes — written in his famous “mirrored” style — from Italian to reveal that “he was aware that the water or sand would not fall at a constant velocity but rather would accelerate.”

Leonardo’s diagram illustrates that if the pitcher is accelerated along its parallel course at the same rate that gravity would accelerate the substance pouring out of it, the substance would fall along a straight but diagonal line that completed the right isosceles triangle. If the pitcher was moving at a constant velocity, the substance would fall in a vertical line that was perpendicular to the ground. He marked the slant with a note reading “Equatione di Moti,” or “equalization (equivalence) of motions.”

Gharib, Roh, and Noca realized Leonardo’s experiment through a computer program and found that the artist’s supporting mathematical equation missed the mark of total accuracy by only 3%. Neither the authors nor MIT Press immediately responded to Hyperallergic’s request for access.

“We don’t know if da Vinci did further experiments or probed this question more deeply,” Gharib said in the CalTech statement. “But the fact that he was grappling with this problem in this way —in the early 1500s — demonstrates just how far ahead his thinking was.”


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