I admire a lot of historical figures, and one such person is Leonardo da Vinci.
On the surface, Leonardo may not have anything to do with lens design. Leonardo he had a keen eye for both of the arts and sciences, and even optics. Art, science, and optics are important in lens design!
Leonardo da Vinci, master of art and science
Leonardo da Vinci used science and sometimes optics for his paintings, like how the light bounces off of objects, or how a feature would look like to the human eye, if drawn in a certain way.
True creativity and innovation come from being able to stand at the intersection of art and science.
The intersection of art and science. Walter Isaacson is an admirer of Leonardo da Vinci, who made no distinction between art and science. Take, for example, the art and science that goes into the iconic smile of the Mona Lisa:
The Mona Lisa, to me, is the greatest emotional painting ever done. The way the smile flickers makes it a work of both art and science, because Leonardo understood optics, and the muscles of the lips, and how light strikes the eye – all of it goes into making the Mona Lisa’s smile so mysterious and elusive.
By C2RMF: Galerie de tableaux en très haute définition: image page – Cropped and relevelled from File:Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci, from C2RMF.jpg. Originally C2RMF: Galerie de tableaux en très haute définition: image page, Public Domain, Link
The intersection of art and science. Steve Jobs knew that engineering should be beautiful, so he obsessed over the look and feel of a technological device as well as its function. Leonardo da Vinci is history’s ultimate example of combining art and science, and that’s what made him history’s greatest genius. For research purposes, he peeled the skin off the faces of cadavers, traced every muscle and nerve that moved the lips, and that informed his creation of the world’s most memorable smile, that of the Mona Lisa. Leonardo was a great anatomist and engineer and theatre producer and artist. He wanted to learn everything that was knowable about our cosmos, including how we fit into it.
Leonardo da Vinci learned to observe nature, and ask the right questions, not to just hypothesize. A select few did this before the Renaissance, for example perhaps Pliny the Elder, as only a small number of Greeks and Romans engaged in empirical science. Science in the Renaissance was not reinvented then, it was born. The modern scientist makes observations with instruments that are extremely sensitive compared to the senses of human beings, and can generate explanations that have universality. We were taught at a young age, not in so many words, that the artist works on the subjective, using insight and inspiration. While scientist work with facts, and objectivity, through data. I like to argue that it’s not just facts that move the scientist, there is also intuition, inspiration, and imagination there as well.
Look for, and appreciate the art and science in lens design
Walter Isaacson states that scientists should see the beauty in their work. At the same time, people in the humanities should appreciate the beauties of math and physics. Otherwise, they will be left as bystanders at the intersection of arts and science, where most digital-age creativity will occur.
During the Renaissance, you suddenly had people working together across disciplines. Chemists working with cloth merchants, jewelry makers, with architects and artisans. And they invented many things, including beautiful silk fabrics, but also the science of perspective. If you hadn’t thrown all those people together, these innovations wouldn’t have happened.
Whether it’s Florence of 1470 or Silicon Valley in the 1970s, magic happens when you get a mix of people together.
If you have some time, read the transcript to one of his lectures. There are many insights I think we can take from him, as lens designers in a field of science.
If being able to stand at the intersection of art and science is where true innovation occurs. For me, it is important to find the art in lens design. I feel that lens design is an intricate balance of art and science. One of my lens design mentors repeatedly says to “take a look at the lens diagram”, look at the rays, and see if it “looks nice”, because the nicer looking lenses usually have better performance. This requires a certain level of experience, but the core message is the same. Lens designers too, require intuition, inspiration, and imagination in our work to get the best possible lens design we can.
An example of my own embarrassing lens design
This is an embarrassing image because it is a telephoto lens design that I did as an exercise (Hey, I’m not going to hide all of my lens design mistakes to you, if it means my point will be made clear :p ).
Let’s look at the ray diagram at the top, and look at the ray diagram on the bottom. Same specification, same designer (me), different lens configuration.
The rays on the top diagram look okay at first glance, but look at the 4th lens (meniscus) and the 5th-6th lens (the doublet). They are way too bendy, especially the doublet. Also, pay close attention to the rays on those surfaces. They kind of bend down, straighten out, and bend down again. This can be a sign that the lenses are trying to bend the rays in an unnatural way, to compensate something (usually an optical aberration). It is making whacky rays just to satisfy the lens design goals that I’ve set in the lens design software (in this case, Zemax Optic Studio).
Conversely, let’s look at the bottom lens design diagram again, I’ve shown it is below, just for convenience.
The rays look so much smoother, and looks like they converse much more naturally, without bending all over the place. The lenses aren’t bendy or crescent-shaped like the top lens design.
This is just an example of having intuition, inspiration, and imagination.
Intuition, inspiration, and imagination in lens design
I say on my site, Pencil of Rays, that in optical lens design, it’s easy to fall into a single discipline, or become very good at a few subsets of lens design. If you are single-disciplined or close to it, it’s possible to feel limited or vulnerable. You might feel like an impostor, only knowing a small scope of optics or lens design, when you know there is so much more to learn.
Let’s take Walter Isaacson’s comments and deconstruct it a bit. Be at the intersection of two of your interests, or two of the things you’re good at.
- Mechanical engineering. Combine that knowledge with lens design and you will be the go-to person for system design, because you’ll be able to design a lens that is robust in manufacture.
- Knowledge of materials. If you know the properties of glass, metals, coatings, housings, etc. more than others, you have an advantage in lens design.
- Electromagnetism and physical optics. Lasers, and how laser beams behave when passing through a lens are important when making a product. You will be the one that knows the interference and diffraction that occurs, and how to control them.
- High level of programming skills. You can combine lens design optimization with programming. You can analyze your results more efficiently with macros you write yourself.
And many, many more ways you can take this concept and make your skills unique within lens design.
Your turn: Evaluate your skills
This is part of the reason I’ve always thought that becoming a more well-rounded optical lens designer would be beneficial to all involved. If you have the abilities to design any optical system, you can work anywhere, and help anybody.
Find the intersection of what you are good at compared to anyone else, and take advantage of it.
What is the skill you are best at, and what are you good at that the people in your field aren’t?
Conversely, what skill do you think you could work on to get better?
I’d love to hear some of your answers, you can comment below.
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