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Descartes's Secret Notebook: A True Tale of Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Quest to Understand the Universe Hardcover – October 11, 2005

3.5 out of 5 stars 39 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway; First Edition edition (October 11, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0767920333
  • ISBN-13: 978-0767920339
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,366,220 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By P. Wung VINE VOICE on February 15, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I had read Amir Aczel's book on Fermat's Last Theorem, and I felt the same way, more confused than enlightened. The problem is that Mr. Aczel has a less than interesting style: the reading goes by very quickly and it just does not feel like one is gaining a lot of facts when one is gaining some facts. I thought Simon Singh did a better job with Fermat and I can't help but think that someone else can do a better job with this material.

It seems like Mr. Aczel has better things to do and more things to say at the end of the book, so he rushes to get to the good stuff only to reveal that there is very little good stuff.

Rene Descarte has always been a very interesting person to me. I had read a rather extensive biography of the man many years ago as an undergrad, so what Mr. Aczel had to bring to the story is interesting but not surprising. He does a pedantic job of relating the basics with some interesting tidbits thrown in, yet his style makes the interesting seem superficial.

The entire time, Mr. Aczel is moving towards the big mysterious reveal, the reason for yet another Descarte biography. He keeps hinting at a great earthshattering surprise, yet when it does come, the surprise is hardly surprising. The ingenious work that Descarte did in defiance of the church authorities of his day is indeed impressive but Mr. Aczel does not do the revelation justice. He never fully engages the reader in the development of the discovery and he fails to explain the difficulty of the mathematic is ignored altogether.

It is a good short treatment of Descarte's life, but there is no heft, very little mathematical detail, and nonexistent mystery in what is promised as a mysterious and revelatory book.
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Format: Hardcover
James Frey has taught us that it's OK to call a work of non-fiction that isn't entirely true a memoir. So maybe this is book is also a memoir?

Aczel has received a number of positive reviews on this book, for example from a Boston newspaper and from two of Amazon's "Top Reviewers." But none of these people are actually competent to judge the contents of the book. All they can really do is summarize what's there and say that they enjoyed reading it.

As is well documented by other reviewers, this book is mostly just a biography and actually has very little about the secret notebook. Aczel does a reasonably good job of summarizing these secondary sources, but almost nothing else he says is true. For example, he says that Descartes invented the ruler and compass construction of the square root and says that the Greeks didn't know how to do this. If any real historian of science had looked over his manuscript, this boner never would have appeared in print. The publisher should be ashamed for propagating such misinformation. If they'd spent a little time and a couple of bucks having a real historian of mathematics review the manuscript, this sort of pathetic error could have been corrected. But the publisher and the author apparently have such contempt for the reading public that they don't care if they publish falsehoods. Or maybe they just didn't want to delay a pre-Christmas release date?

This isn't an isolated example. The book is loaded with nonsense, from matheamtical facts to dates to what the fifth element represented in Plato's cosmology. And the really pathetic thing is that almost none of these sophomoric errors has anything to do with the biography of Descartes or with the secret notebook.
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Format: Hardcover
I generally enjoyed the biography of the young Descartes in the first few dozen pages of this book. But soon I started reading things about the history of mathematics which I know to be incorrect. So I have to conclude that the book is at least somewhat untrustworthy.

When discussing the duplication of the cube, Aczel says that Eratosthenes was a contemporary of Eudoxus in Plato's Academy, whereas he actually lived more than a century later. Elsewhere on this webpage, Dr. Amir Bernstein dismisses this as "a mere hundred years" and says that "dates of Greek mathematicians/philosophers are known only approximately." Actually, we can date Eudoxus and Eratosthenes quite accurately because Aristotle wrote about Eudoxus' astronomical theories in his _Metaphysics_ and Archimedes dedicated his book _The Method_ to Eratosthenes. Not only did they live more than 130 years apart, but they belonged to completely different mathematical cultures. In between their two lives, there was a philosophical revolution (Aristotle proposed the axiomatic method), a mathematical revolution (Euclid's Elements standardized the practice of geometry) and a social revolution (Alexander's multicultural "cosmopolis" became a reality in Alexandria).

Even such a simple fact such as the year in which Euler first went to St. Petersburg is wrong: it's given as 1730 instead of 1727. Aczel also claims that Euler visited Hanover on this journey. Thiele (1982) gives a very complete chronicle of the journey, based on Euler's own notebook, in his German-language biography, but he makes no mention of Hanover. Tellingly, Aczel gives no citation for his claim, which he uses to bolster his questionable theory that Euler somehow learned his theorem that F+V=E+2 from Descartes' lost notebook.
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