Saturday, October 29, 2011

Descartes' Secret Notebook (2)

Aczel, Amir D. Descartes' Secret Notebook: A True Tale of Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Quest to Understand the Universe. New York: Broadway Books, 2005. xiv, 273 pp.

Chapter 12 finds Descartes moving to Holland in 1628, meeting and eventually breaking with his friend Isaac Beeckman over claims about what Beeckman taught Descartes.

Descartes worked on his book Le Monde from 1629-1633. Descartes was a Copernican, but cancelled publication in November 1633 upon learning of Galileo's ordeal under the Inquisition. Descartes' situation was probably much safer, but he continued to steer clear of publication, fearing reprisals. Details follow.

Chapter 13 recounts Descartes' secret affair or marriage with a servant woman, Hélène Jans, which produced a daughter Francine. Descartes was devastated when Francine died in 1640 (p. 147).

Chapter 14 is devoted to Descartes' epoch-making 1637 work Discourse on the Method. Descartes' invention of analytical geometry was a revolutionary discovery. Chapter 15 details Descartes' solution to the ancient Greek mystery of doubling a cube—the Delian problem.

Chapter 16 concerns Descartes' friendship with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, hungry for knowledge of metaphysics, physics, and mathematics.

In Chapter 17 we find Descartes embroiled in confrontation with academics in Utrecht, chief among them Gisbert Voetius, who in opposing Cartesianism levelled the dangerous accusation of atheism. Cartesian philosophy was banned from the university. Ultimately, there was a vicious lawsuit which Descartes lost, and he had to issue a letter of apology to avoid imprisonment.

In Chapter 18 we approach the final chapter of Descartes' life, in which he is induced to come to Stockholm by Queen Christina. She lavished honors on him while others in the court were hostile. Tutoring the queen also cramped Descartes' lifestyle. Worse, as we see in Chapter 19, the Swedish climate did him in. He resisted until almost the end the quack cure of bleeding the patient, and then gave in, and then died. His last words were: "Ah, my dear Schluter, this is the time I must leave." (p. 197)

The fate of Descartes' remains is summarized here, but you can also read the whole story in Russell Shorto's Descartes’ Bones. Now we return to the story of what became of Descartes' locked box (202).This box contained copies of various correspondence and responses to critics, but also secret manuscripts—Preambles, Olympica, Democritica, Experimenta, Parnassus—and a notebook containing cryptic mathematical and other symbols. In the final installment, we shall review Leibniz's inspection of Descartes' notebook and the ultimate deciphering of the mysterious text.

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