The Magic of Numbers and Motion: The Scientific Career of René Descartes

The Magic of Numbers and Motion: The Scientific Career of René Descartes

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Shea, William R. 1991, x + 371 pp., illus.


Descartes is often described as the leading rationalist of the seventeenth century, an armchair philosopher who believed that his metaphysics contained all the principles of physics, and that physics was nothing but geometry. Such a simple characterization hardly does justice to a leading figure of the scientific revolution and conveys but a poor idea of the fascinating and complex way that his philosophy and his science interacted. This book provides a broader and fuller picture of a man of genius who lived in an age when a scholar could take the whole of knowledge for his province. In Chapters 1 and 2, we follow Descartes from his early training in a Jesuit college in France to the Netherlands where he enlisted in the army and was rescued from the boredom of the barrack life by Isaac Beechman, who stimulated his interest in mathematics, music, the law of free fall and problems in hydrostatics. In Chapter 2, we see how Descartes was launched on his reform of geometry by the brilliant discovery of a mathematical device that enabled him to find mean proportionals and trace out curves of increasing complexity Chapter 4 discusses Descartes' attempt to extend the empire of mathematics to musical consonance. Chapter 5 reveals that Descartes was not always clad in the shining armour of rationality, and that he was interested in the Rosicrucian movement at the time he experienced he celebrated dream in 1619. Chapter 6 outlines Descartes' quest for a method based on clear and distinct intellectual perception, and his conception of the role of the natural philosopher as seeking proportional relations among fundamental magnitudes. Chapter 7 tells of his spectacular discovery of the law of refraction, and  Chapter 8 shows how Descartes used his metaphysics to ground his physics. Chapter 9 recounts his triumphal explanation of the rainbow, and Chapter 10 outlines his achievements in optics. Chapters 11 and 12 describe the genesis and properties of his new world, and discuss the role of his laws of motion and his rules of impact. The final chapter discloses the shock that Descartes experienced when he heard of Galileo's condemnation in 1633, and how he found a way of publishing his ideas without incurring a similar fate. The conclusion draws attention to the tension between descartes' methodological ideal and his actual scientific procedure, and the appendix offers a useful chronology of descartes' life and work.

“Most treatments of Cartesian science have been dull, misdirected or reverential; here we have an account that is lively, critical and thoroughly informed by both ancillary sources and Descartes’ correspondence… I wish I could have read this book long ago: a comprehensive and fascinating introduction to a man whose writings must be absorbed before later seventeenth-century science, not least Newton’s, can be fully appreciated.” –A. Rupert Hall, Nature

“To have drawn the diverse strands of Descartes’ philosophy and science together in a coherent whole, and to have presented that whole in the form of a credible intellectual biography is a task that should earn all of our thanks.” –Andrew Pyle, British Journal of the History of Science

“It is a very impressive achievement and stands as a model to everyone who wants to come to terms with Descartes’ scientific thought. It would make an excellent textbook and should be issued in paperback immediately.” –Stephen Gaukroger, Metascience