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By Amir D. Aczel
Amir D. Aczel is the kind of writer I love to read; a “science popularizer”, that is, a scientist who can write about science in terms that someone like me, a person who is not a professional scientist yet loves to learn more about science, can understand.
But that’s not all. Aczel could’ve been a great mystery or thriller writer if he didn’t write about science since all his books have that page-turner quality to them. Once you pick up an Aczel book it won’t be easy to put it down. Descartes’s Secret Notebook: A True Tale of Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Quest to Understand the Universe, as well as his two other important books (The Jesuit and the Skull and Fermat’s Last Theorem: Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem) all provide a delightful reading experience while teaching a lot about history of science. Aczel excels in taking us back to the early 17th century and bringing to life the social milieu in which the seeds of Rene Descartes’ ideas originated, broke ground and then bloomed into full flower as a new paradigm, i.e. the Cartesian System, that changed our world forever.
However, if all Aczel did was to “explain” Descartes’ ideas there would not be any need for the subtitle of the book: “A True Tale of Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Quest to Understand the Universe.” He does more than that.
Descartes was a very private and “masked” man who led an eventful life and left behind a mysterious “Secret Book.” Aczel unfolds for us the significance of Descartes’ unpublished notes which were preserved and deciphered thanks to another scientific giant of that era, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who made a personal visit to Paris to handcopy Descartes’ secret book long after the death of the French Master in 1650.
Throughout the book we are treated to one delectable morsel from history of science after another including Descartes’ love of travel and interest in battles and warfare; how Italian mathematicians held public quadratic equation “duels” in the 16th century for fame and riches; the importance of the “Rosicrucian connection” in Descartes’ life and work; why Descartes could not publish everything he wrote during his very productive career; his trials and tribulations during his Dutch exile; his constant balancing act between the Catholic and Protestant factions of his day; why the ancient Greeks could not have solved the “Delian puzzle” by using only a straightedge and compass; importance of Kepler in the Descartian world; Descartes’ love life; Descartes’ unacknowledged contribution to topology (about 100 years before Euler); his Swedish tenure as private tutor to Queen Christina; his death and the strange fate of his skull; and much more…
After reading this book you’ll feel enriched by an intimate understanding of one of the most important eras in the development of Western science as we know it today and the incomparable role Rene Descartes played in it.
If you’d like to understand the world we live in at a much deeper level you owe it to yourself to read this book because, as Aczel reminds us, even the GPS system that we use today in our cars and airplanes would’ve been impossible without Descartes’ principles of analytical geometry and his Cartesian System. (Did you know that?)
I can’t wait for Aczel’s other books on other giants of the history of science. He is the perfect author for the right topic.