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Tinkering With the Toys of an Incomparable Genius

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, let me make it perfectly clear that the incomparable Leonardo da Vinci did not invent television, computers, or Big Macs.

But this extraordinary man from Italy's 15th century - no electricity in those days, or cameras, or plastic, or engines - drew plans for an automobile, bicycle, helicopter, cannon, paddleboat, military tank, machine gun, parachute, and submarine.

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And he painted what may be the best known painting of all time, the haunting "Mona Lisa," now hanging in the Louvre museum in Paris.

All of the above accomplishments are explored at the Boston Museum of Science in a dazzling, hands-on, partially computerized exhibition, "Leonardo da Vinci: Scientist, Inventor, Artist."

The exhibition explains how the man's revolutionary interests were interconnected, and sprang from an endless curiosity based on what he saw, and not what others said was there.

Taking the tour

Begin with the 10-minute multimedia show with special effects that introduces you to Leonardo and his place in the Renaissance. Be sure to watch for the huge model of a golden horse in the upper right hand part of the staging. This is the model created recently for the full-sized casting being done of Leonardo's bronze, 24-foot tall Sforza Horse monument, a project he started but never finished.

In the section on art, you can practice mirror writing next to a copy of a page from Leonardo's notebooks in which he scribbled backward and in reverse. Leonardo was left-handed and allegedly wrote in reverse to not smear the ink. To read his thousands of pages of notes, each page was held up to a mirror.

Or you can adjust light falling on a robe to experiment with shadow and distance perception just as Leonardo examined light and shadow to give his paintings a luminous quality. On the walls are paintings, either copies of his works, or works done by others who copied his techniques. In the largest section of the exhibit, the focus is on Leonardo as an inventor and scientist.

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Along the walls are facsimiles of his notebook drawings, and nearby are detailed, scale models of Leonardo's versions of a helicopter, tank, paddle boat, and other devices.

At one table you can send a small parachute designed by Leonardo into the air and watch it drift down. At three interactive stations, you can explore his fascination with water by experimenting with flows of water to create eddies and swirls, and determining if a stream of water gains force with height.

Build it yourself

Various CD-ROM stations allow visitors to sit down and look at and tinker with Leonardo's architectural ideas, including viewing a so-called "modern" city he designed. Nearby, using, large wooden pieces, you can build a low foot bridge using your own ideas or borrowing ideas from Leonardo.

Because Leonardo was fascinated with how the human body worked, two cutaway plastic models of a human torso are also on display.

And in a small room, in a series of facsimile illustrations, there is a exhibit of a cataclysmic flood Leonardo predicted would engulf the earth. Once an hour, on a small stage near the end of the exhibit, actors perform an original, 20-minute comedy and drama production about Leonardo's legacy to the world.

According to the museum staff, a thorough visit through the exhibit should take about an hour and a half.

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