Sunday, March 25, 2012

Descartes's Secret Notebook: A True Tale of Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Quest to Understand the Universe

by Amir D. Aczel

A look at Descartes’ life and work, written in a very breezy, popular style that supposes almost no math or philosophy experience.  This material is peppered by a lot of winking references to Rosicrucians, the Inquisition, and some melodramatic insinuations about Descartes hiding his greatest discoveries (the “secret notebook” of the title, which Leibnitz decoded right after his death, so it’s not exactly secret, is it?).

This is the third Aczel book I have read (after the okay The Riddle of the Compass and the more interesting Chance), and while the others were both flawed, especially in matters of historical record, those flaws were outweighed by the stories Aczel had to tell.  In the case of this book, though, the engine that drives the book, its raison d’etre, is not to tell Descartes’ story but to embellish it into something Dan Brown might write, a potboiler of secret societies and death threats.  It is a sham of false drama, which the story of one of history’s greatest intellects, who was deeply religious, created Western philosophy, served as a gentleman soldier, and mingled with royalty, simply does not need.  The book is riddled with errors, mostly minor (Aczel describes the Rosicrucians’ symbol right above an illustration of it that is quite unlike his description), and also contains many errors of logic (Aczel says Descartes had nothing to fear from the Inquisition regarding his cosmological model, since it was “not valid,” as if that has anything to do with a challenge to the Church’s authority); but Azcel’s main sin is his constant obfuscation – what he insinuates by not telling all the facts.  For example, one of the main “reveals” of the book is that Descartes thought of, and hid, what would become Euler’s formula about three-dimensional solids, when it seems to be commonly accepted by scholars that Descartes did not make the final connection to the finished formula.  He makes absurd, silly claims about November 10 being “eerily significant” in Descartes’ life, ironically adding mystical numerology to the life of a logical thinker.  The false drama grates after only a few pages (the chapters and chapter breaks all ending with hyperbolic cliffhanger questions, all of which come to nothing in particular).  And it is packed with uninformative filler (Descartes stopped to rest his horses!  He went to an inn that was popular!  This inn had people in it!  He rested!  He picked up his horses!).  The book is deeply disappointing, because a sensible biography of Descartes for the layman, with Azcel using his expertise to make the math clear, could have been a treasure. 

two stars

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