Math and the Mona Lisa

Frank Swetz, reviewer

Math and the Mona Lisa: The Art and Science of Leonardo da Vinci, Bűlent Atalay, 2004, 314 + XXI pp., $24.95, cloth, bibliographical reference, index and illustrations, ISBN 1-58834-171-2. Smithsonian Books, Washington, D.C.


This is not a sequel to The Da Vinci Code.  In his book, author Atalay, himself a physicist and recognized artist, makes the case for Leonardo da Vinci as the first modern scientist.  By his power to observe, record and communicate the intricacies of nature and the world around him, Leonardo emerges as the ultimate artist-scientist-engineer.  In his perceptions and creations, he intuitively captures the mathematical essences of perspective, proportion, patterns, shapes and symmetries that underlie art and nature.

Math and the Mona Lisa attempts to present science through art and art through science.  In the process, it takes the reader on an historical tour of many mathematical concepts and their applications: from the origins of counting and measurement to the recognition and construction of regular and semi-regular polyhedra to the development of quantum mechanics.  Penrose tilings and logarithmic spirals are considered alongside the work of M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali.  Prominent in these considerations is the emergence of the “golden proportion” and its manifestations in the golden rectangle, the golden triangle, the golden pyramid and the spirals of phyllotaxis; as well as its appearance in the works of many prominent artists.  Indeed, this is a good primer on the golden proportion.  Of course, the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci, the main focus of the text, is fully reviewed and analyzed.  His creative genius is both clarified and magnified. A series of appealing, colorful illustrations are included.

This is a serious book about a serious topic.  Information is often dense and always thought provoking.  At times, it is not an easy read.  However, for those who choose to explore this book, it will provide an enriching experience.


Frank J.Swetz, Professor Emeritus, The Pennsylvania State University