From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. What Aczel did for mathematician Fermat (Fermat's Last Theorem) he now does for Descartes in this splendid study about the French philosopher and mathematician (1596–1650) most famous for his paradigm-smashing declaration, "I think; therefore, I am." Part historical sketch, part biography and part detective story, Aczel's chronicle of Descartes's hidden work hinges on his lost secret notebook. Of 16 pages of coded manuscript, one and a half were copied in 1676 by fellow philosopher and mathematician Leibniz. For him, Descartes's inscription of the cryptic letters "GFRC" immediately revealed his association with the occult fraternity of the Rosicrucians—Leibniz was also a member. The notebook also revealed to Leibniz a discovery made by Descartes that would have transformed mathematics. As Aczel so deftly demonstrates, Descartes's mathematical theories were paths to an understanding the order and mystery of the cosmos, and he kept the notebook hidden because it contained a formula that—because it supported Copernicus's model of the solar system—Descartes feared would lead to his persecution by the Inquisition. Aczel lucidly explains the science, mystery and mathematics of Descartes, who has never been so lively as he is in the pages of this first-rate biography and social history.
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Aczel's new episode from mathematical history concerns an enigmatic manuscript by Rene Descartes. It survives in a partial copy made by Gottfried Leibniz. The author makes the discovery of the reason Leibniz neglected to copy the manuscript in its entirety a method for enticing readers into his well-paced narrative. Framed by Descartes' languid lifestyle--living on inherited wealth, he slept late, dressed fashionably, and wandered about Europe--the story centers on Descartes' penchant for secrecy. Living in an age of intolerance and the Thirty Years' War, he had ample inducement to be cautious about his philosophical speculations, but desiring intellectual socializing, he joined, Aczel indicates, the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross. A secret society, the Rosicrucians furnish more a mystical mood than evidence in Aczel's mystery hunt, which pursues what was in that lost writing of Descartes. Laying clues, he describes the philosopher's interest in the geometry of cosmic space. Aczel's appeal, well earned from seven previous popular works, will draw fans to his new work. Gilbert Taylor
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