Da Vinci's Genome

Leonardo da Vinci, the original Renaissance man.


Jesse Ausubel wants to understand the original Renaissance man by unlocking his genome. If he succeeds, it could revolutionize several fields in science and elsewhere. Read our interview with him here.


Chess as a hobby makes for great exercise of the mind. Chess as an obsession — well, the prolific Vladimir Nabokov makes it pretty abundant what that can lead to in his third novel, The Luzhin Defense. We are introduced to Aleksander Ivanovich Luzhin, a childhood social outcast turned chess prodigy whose life spans the novel. His character portrait presents a blend of over effusive strategic instincts meant for the chessboard and an overwhelming mental anxiety that steadily pulls Luzhin from the grip of reality towards frenetic visions of his life presented in chess pieces. He reaches the highly respectable rank of grandmaster easily enough, but it’s the rocky road towards becoming World Champion that not only eludes but incapacitates Luzhin.

Nabokov, as he often likes to do, spins an air of engrossing mystery over the text — the ending is ambiguous, the characters are puzzling, and the musical descriptions of chess players sparring with each other on the board are enthralling. A “musical tempest” swells over the board once a chink is found in the opponent’s stratagem; from there, we are treated to “the tiny, clear note” hidden in the excitement that is crucial to winning the game in a “thunderous harmony.” Encore indeed.



“Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.” Switzerland, adds Orson Welles’ magnifying character in The Third Man (we won’t spoil what his name is!), had five hundred years of democracy and peace — and all they managed to invent was the cuckoo clock. You can probably guess what his outlook on human life. If you enjoyed the Viennese setting of The Man Without Qualities and the dark British Noir of The Fallen Idol, both previously demoed in the Rostrum, you’ll surely enjoy this flick as well — and we don’t even have time to dive into its famous soundtrack.

Enter post-war Vienna, troublesomely divided between the Americans, British, French, and Soviets. Meet Holly Martins, played by Joseph Cotten, writer of sensational novels and, as the story unfolds, victim to a sensational sequence of events. The authorities say that his longtime friend Harry Lime has died in a street accident. Two friends of the deceased say they pulled him out of the street. A nervous bystander claims he saw an anonymous third man help. Suddenly, and in true Noir fashion, asking the right questions becomes a whole lot more dangerous and a lot less pleasant for Martins: you’ll have to watch to piece together more.



Back when US presidents didn’t have the luxury of announcing their foreign policy stances over twitter and relations with Russia were a lot worse than they are today (well, maybe too much worse), the question of efficient communication between the top United States power brokers and the Kremlin loomed over the heads of concerned citizens. The Cuban missile crisis crystallized their concerns: reports say that encrypted messages from Nikita Krushchev took extremely long to process. The repercussions were very real: by the time the US had decoded Krushchev’s first 3,000 word settlement over Cuba, a new message had already been received with the added demand to remove missiles from Turkey. Come June in 1963 — following a healthy amount of nagging from an American intelligentsia upset that they could be annihilated over a late telegram — both superpowers formally agreed to setup a direct hotline. It went live on August 30.

As reality would have it, the famous red telephone popularized by Dr. Strangelove’s poster and movie was never real: speech had from the start been deemed too susceptible to mispronunciations and misunderstandings. Telegrams, faxes as of 1988, and eventually emails in 2007 were the only methods of communication used. The first American message on August 30 read: “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back 1234567890.” The hotlines first official use would come over a year later with Kennedy’s assassination, although the telegrams were always tested hourly — the Americans liked to send quotes from Shakespeare and Mark Twain. The Soviets responded with Chekhov. Even the greatest of opponents understood had a sense of levity, if not a desire to prevent pointless mishaps.