Archimedes’ eureka moment in the bath is the stuff of legend, but it is unlikely the great mathematician and inventor would have delivered the famed remark without pursuing his profound interest in hydrodynamics and the intertwined relationships of buoyancy and displacement. On one hand, water was (and remains) a ubiquitous presence for the seafaring Greeks. Likewise, anyone who has watched a child in the bathtub can relate to the simple joys it affords.
Archimedes eponymous principle, however, took a natural interest in water and floating bodies several steps further to determine whether a crown was made of solid gold and better define the laws of physics. Leonardo da Vinci, the archetypal Renaissance Man, was unquestionably inspired by commonplace things throughout his feverishly productive life. One must look no further than the genius’s manuscripts and notebooks for evidence that da Vinci was intensely curious about some of the world’s most ordinary elements.
Studies of the human body, certainly among the most familiar of forms, are likely the master’s most replicated composition. Perhaps it is no coincidence the Italian’s Vitruvian Man pen-and-ink sketch ranks among the most well-known and reproduced drawings in the world. Whether Leonardo’s passion and interest in reproducing the human body contributed to his other innovations and inventions beyond art is difficult to assess, but one thing is certain: da Vinci’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge of his earthly surroundings was inextricably tied to his ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.
The unlikely course of events that lead Isaac Newton to formulate the theory of gravity offers an example of a revolutionary idea spurred by something as banal as a piece of fruit. “What is the invisible force that causes an apple to fall to the ground? ” the great thinker wondered. While some have disputed the veracity of Newton’s apple incident, there is no doubting the role the everyday world played in conjunction with Newton’s observant and contemplative mind.
While the laws of motion took years to fully devise and compose, there is perhaps no better illustration of the nascent brilliance the human mind is capable of revealing when awakened by the natural elements. Many of the world’s leading contemporary minds continue to find inspiration in their environs. Over the last decade, the scientific community has become more willing to turn to nature for answers to difficult questions. As it turns out, potentially outstanding ideas have often been tested and confirmed or rejected by the flora and fauna all around us through natural selection, according to pioneers in the biomimicry field.
Proponents of biomimicry have studied humpback whale flippers as a means to improve wind turbine performance and plant leaves as a model for “green cleaning” process that some paints and building materials now incorporate. Clearly there is much still to be learned from nature. It has been a long time coming, but it appears many in the world are prepared to accept that the best ideas arise from a passionate interest in commonplace things. Perhaps necessity is not the true mother of invention - history demonstrates that inquiring minds and Mother Nature herself more often inspire greatness.