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

3.59  ·  Rating details ·  290 Ratings  ·  50 Reviews
René Descartes (1596–1650) is one of the towering and central figures in Western philosophy and mathematics. His apothegm “ Cogito, ergo sum ” marked the birth of the mind-body problem, while his creation of so-called Cartesian coordinates have made our physical and intellectual conquest of physical space possible. But Descartes had a mysterious and mystical side, as well. ...more
Paperback, 288 pages
Published October 10th 2006 by Broadway Books (first published 2005)
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Tom Carrico
Jan 23, 2009 rated it really liked it
Descartes’ Secret Notebook
By Amir D. Aczel

Reviewed by Tom Carrico

This fascinating and highly readable book is part biography, part mystery and part treatise on philosophy and mathematics. Rene Descartes lived from 1596 to 1650. His life was one of adventure and discovery. His philosophy was hotly debated at the time and his discoveries in mathematics were and are regarded as genius. This author tries to add another layer to the legend by examining a purported “secret notebook”, long lost but cop
...more
Chris Craddock
Jun 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
McDonalds wifi ate my review then asked if I wanted fries with my order. No thanks.
Ensiform
May 18, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction, math
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 C
...more
Peter Van
One thing I'd like to add to all the comments. Aczel tells us that Descartes learned the language 'Flemish' while living in Breda (the place I was born) but Flemish is, and was, the term used for the version/dialect of Dutch that is spoken in what is now Belgium. Breda is not located in Belgium, but in The Netherlands and the dialect spoken in Breda is Brabantian. When you're in Breda the language you want to learn is Dutch.
Further on in the book he states that when Descartes was visiting the Fr
...more
Whoof
Dec 10, 2016 added it
Found it quite amusing and entertaining, but some of the mathematical exposition (and there isn't too much of it) seems misleading.

I think most of what I learned from reading this (outside of interesting biographical details of Descartes) needs to be double-checked for veracity. Aczel essentially asserts that Descartes' secret notebook contained Euler's formula (F+V -E = 2) but poking around some other sources reveals that it isn't so simple, although Descartes had derived a related and near eq
...more
Viviana
May 26, 2014 rated it it was ok
(Spoilers) I picked up this book presuming that the entire novel was a thrilling cross-analysis of the full secret notebook of Descartes and a revelation of his deceptive deeds. Unfortunately, this is not the case. This book is simply a biography of Descartes, mainly due to the fact that his "secret notebook" (only 16 pages long) was never again found after the 1700s & unable to be fully analyzed. The only fragment left of his notebook is a short & scribbled written copy of a couple page ...more
Tom
Dec 05, 2010 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book. All I really knew about Descartes before this was "cogito ergo sum" and that he is commonly attributed with dividing the mind from the body in Western philosophical thought. He was much more interesting that just those two tidbits. If he wasn't actually a member of the Rosicrucians, he was certainly in correspondence with that very secret group and heavily influenced by their thinking...hence the secret notebook.

Descartes married geometry and algebra and thereby laid
...more
Barbara
Apr 11, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed this book. I'd seen it in a library display and thought it might be interesting....Not my usual type of reading at all, but I'm very glad I read it.

The book was mostly a biography of Descartes. Some of it was familiar to me, from learning about Descartes in French class and reading Discourse on the Method that J inspired me to study. It was enjoyable reading about the Rosicrucians, taking me back to my years as an astrologer. Pythagoras, Hermes Trismegistus, Tycho Brahe, Max Hei
...more
Rossrn Nunamaker
I quickly finished Descartes' Secret Notebook by Amir Aczel. This non-fiction work follows Descartes' life and explores a secret, encrypted, notebook Descartes kept, why he kept it, and what it included. Living at the time of the Inquisition and hearing of Galileo's "trial" one can imagine why he kept some things secret. The shame is what we as a society may have lost as a result.

I knew of Descarte as a philosopher and was aware of his work in mathematics, but hadn't quite realized how brilliant
...more
Bethany
Descartes’ Secret Notebook is “a true tale of mathematics, mysticism, and the quest to understand the universe.” The book is good, but I was a bit disappointed. I had hoped for pages and pages of Descartes’ secret notebook, when in fact there are only a couple of them. Also, the big huge secret isn’t revealed until the last few pages of the book.

Aczel is very knowledgeable, and certainly makes this book accessible to all readers, not just ones who grew up in mathematical families like me where D
...more
Stephen Hackney
May 02, 2015 rated it really liked it
Amir Aczel writes in a rich, informative manner. The author is thoroughly well versed in the history of his subject. In being so, the author is able to deliver to the reader the historical connections of Descarte's visionary discoveries within his own lifetime, but convey the relationship of these discoveries, such as Descarte's Cartesian Coordinate System, and the historical import Descarte's work influenced the varied disciplines of mathematics down to the present era. Well written, well prese ...more
William
Sep 16, 2010 rated it really liked it
Very interesting look into the life of Descartes, and the historical context in which he lived. Unbeknownst to most of us, he discovered the Euler relationship between sides, faces, and vertexes of solid geometry (E = F + V - 2). Unfortunate that Descartes was persecuted and finally murdered by his rivals; it makes me wonder what more he would have discovered if he were allowed to live. Perhaps a look into Cartesian philosophy would be in order, beyond the "cogito, ergo, sum" that he is famous f ...more
Em
Jun 19, 2007 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: math/history
Shelves: abandoned
I just started it today when I was waiting in the library, not expecting to find it too interesting...but it's a surprisingly quick read. Before I knew it, I was like halfway through. Really compelling story...Descartes is an enigmatic genius. Anyone who's into math or even logic or like the history surrounding the man, czech it. It's pretty sweet, makes you appreciate cartesians and calculus just a little bit more, and who couldn't use a little more appreciation for those, yeah?
Denisse
Nov 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Rene Descartes is one of my favorite mathematicians. I love how he made the Cartesian coordinates that makes everything simplified like a number line in every format. He is also more than that. He is a famous personality in Psychology and Philosophy.
The Secret Notebook is a very good read that lets you think thoroughly about the world of Mathematics, and the Earth in general. It also talks about principles and other psychology-related critical thinking.
Beth
Aug 18, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's strange to think that the man who invented the Cartesian Coordinate System is also the same "philosophy guy" who came up with "I think, therefore I am." As a matter of fact, it is the same guy and he never got out of bed until noon! This book is a very interesting look at Rene Decartes and I very much enjoyed it, although it was pretty dry at times.
Matt
Mar 07, 2009 rated it liked it
While interesting, Aczel mainly relies upon the reader's desire for secret societies and Da Vinci Code-like intrigue. This results in a lackluster story and a disappointing finish. Descartes is a fascinating philosopher and scholar, but there really is no "secret." He did impact science, mathematics, and philosophy in amazing fashions, though. If you like these fields of study, go for it.
Sandra Strange
You have to really be interested in 17th C science and history to enjoy this one. It reviews Descartes's life and accomplishments, then adds evidence from a secret notebook (lost but copied in part by Liebnitz) that shows that Descartes should be credited with more discoveries (including preliminaries to calculus) than he is.
Ariel Cruz
Jan 16, 2008 rated it it was ok
Recommended to Ariel by: anyone interested in seeing Descartes nude.
Shelves: journalism


While nicely written (albeit alittle too accessibly) it turns out that Decartes "mysticism" doesn't go too much farther than the Pythagorean faith in the ultimate importance of math alongside the then fashionable preoccupation of european gentlemen with alchemy. As a quick bio of the man it's a nice little snack but doesn't live up to its premise.
Nick Mather
More a biography of Descartes than anything else. The material regarding mysticism fills up about ten pages, tops. The writing was ok, but not great. A few interesting tidbits about Descartes' life. Its an easy read, but I couldn't help feeling like it was a really lengthy undergraduate research paper.
Daniel Kelleher
Mar 01, 2008 rated it it was ok
This book is excellent... for a quick biography of DeCartes. Aczel's pros is outstanding, his history, however, is lacking. For a biography, the pages turn nicely, but Aczel's attempts to imitate Dan Brown weigh the book down and make it look foolish.
Akrabar
Aug 09, 2012 rated it liked it
The book was a trifle disappointing. The authors' Fermat's Last Theorem was much better. In this book on Descartes, the author digresses a lot (imho). The saving grace(s) is/are the first and the last chapter.
Suzie Diver
Sep 24, 2015 rated it it was ok
Disappointing

The author's writing style is dry, disjointed and repetitive, missing many opportunities for interesting or unusual background information. The book is essentially a biography of Descartes, not a mystery and certainly not "an exciting, swashbuckling journey".
dejah_thoris
Jan 20, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
A fascinating biography and analysis of Descartes and his contribution to modern mathematics. Far ahead of his time, he lived an interesting life but feared to publish his revolutionary theories because of the troubles that plagued Galileo.
Stephen
Jul 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Excellent book on Descartes. I didn't know much about this revolutionary french scientist from the 1600's but I'm glad I've become acquainted with his times, his struggles, and his accomplishments. Aczel has written a very good book here.
Julie
May 22, 2012 rated it liked it
Fascinating book; I learned a lot about Descartes. It was a bit slow in parts and I actually considered not finishing it, but that was only once and it was a brief thought. That's the reason I'm only giving 3 stars.
PastAllReason
Jan 13, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-2008, science
A quick biographical read on Descartes. It was interesting from the perspective of the tenuous political climate that Descartes lived and worked in while persecution of academics abounded. The packaging of the book suggests something Da Vinci Code-ish, which it is not.
Ann
Jul 19, 2008 rated it really liked it
A really interesting biography that also included the math itself, not just talking around it. Which means it comes complete with diagrams and formulae, but that just helps to create a fuller picture of Descartes' life and genius.
Jesse
May 20, 2008 rated it it was ok
Aczel seems more bent on making what should have been an intellectual thriller into a tawdry, banal tom-jones-esque bio. There is some interesting history in here, but it's barely worth stomaching the craptacular style Aczel spackles all over the place.
Cory
Jun 16, 2015 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this book. It only took me a couple of weeks to read. It gave me a better understanding of the life of Rene Descartes. I found out new information that I had not previously known about this philosopher and mathematician.
J.R.
Oct 30, 2007 rated it really liked it
A very interesting history of the man with almost no math involved at all. I enjoyed the picture of his way of life being a member of the French upper class. He was never without servant for example.
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