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Why Walter Isaacson writes about innovators who make history

Author, journalist and professor Walter Isaacson has delved into the lives of influential figures ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to Ada Lovelace. He believes that those who thrive at the intersection of arts and sciences are the ones who will become a part of history. Isaacson shares his Brief but Spectacular take on what’s it’s like to write about people.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next, we turn to another episode of our weekly series Brief But Spectacular.

    Tonight, we hear from journalist, professor and author Walter Isaacson. His biographies of influential figures range from Leonardo da Vinci to Ada Lovelace.

    Isaacson believes that those who thrive at the intersection of arts and sciences are the ones who will become a part of history.

  •  Walter Isaacson:

    You know, I had a mentor in New Orleans, sort of a family friend, great novelist, Walker Percy.

    And he said, there were two types of people who come out of Louisiana, preachers and storytellers. He said, for heaven's sake, be a storyteller. The world has too many preachers.

    I like to take on subjects for my biography that stand in the intersection between the arts and the sciences, because, whether it was Benjamin Franklin or Steve jobs or Leonardo da Vinci, I think that's what gives creativity.

    Steve Jobs, whenever he did a product launch, would show street signs showing that intersection of the arts and sciences. That's what Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man is all about.

    And when Einstein was looking for the theories of relativity, he pulled out his violin to play Mozart. And, of course, Benjamin Franklin flying a kite in the rain, those electricity experiments helped him understand the notion of checks, balances, pluses, minuses that we see in our Constitution.

    When I was working on Leonardo da Vinci, the biggest insights I had was going page by page through the 7,200 pages of notebooks that he had left behind. And I realized, since I couldn't get Steve Jobs' notes from the 1990s, because they were all on some computer where the operating system no longer worked, how wonderful of a technology for the storage of information paper is.

    Its battery never runs down. Its operating system never goes out of style. And, 500 years later, we can just sit there and marvel at Leonardo's notebooks.

    Leonardo da Vinci never outgrew his wonder years. He even had a question that I loved, which is, describe the tongue of a woodpecker.

    Who wakes up one morning and puts that on their to-do list?

    Whether I was at The Aspen Institute or "TIME" magazine or CNN, I know a lot of smart people. But it soon occurred to me that smart people are a dime a dozen. And they often don't amount to much.

    What matters is being innovative, creative and imaginative. And that requires that type of out-of-the-box thinking and curiosity you see in everybody from Leonardo da Vinci to Steve Jobs.

    I like being a storyteller, and when I was a young writer at "TIME," and I could do cover stories and talk about a person who had changed history, like Jeff Bezos in the 1990s. We made him person of the year. And you think, wow, that's interesting. That's satisfying, to show how somebody is changing the course of history.

    And so, to be a writer, where I can look at other people's lives and realize it's part of something larger than myself or ourselves, but how people become a part of history.

    I'm Walter Isaacson, and this is my brief and perhaps spectacular take and what it's like to write about people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Walter has written some remarkable biographies.

    And you can watch additional Brief But Spectacular episodes on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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