Rene Descartes
1596 - 1650

Rene Descartes was born on March 31, 1596, in Touraine, France. He was entered into Jesuit College at the age of eight, where he studied for about eight years. He was said to be in such delicate health that he was allowed to remain in bed until late every morning. However, he did study the classics, logic and philosophy. Out of all of these, Descartes only found mathematics to be satisfactory in reaching the truth of the science of nature.

Descartes spent several more years in Paris studying mathematics with friends, such as Mersenne. He then received a law degree in 1616. At that point in time, a man that held that type of education either joined the army or the church. Descartes chose to join the army of a nobleman in 1617.

While serving, Descartes came across a certain geometrical problem that had been posed as a challenge to the entire world to solve. Upon solving the problem in only a few hours, he had met a man named Isaac Beeckman, a Dutch scientist. This would turn out to be a long friendship. Since becoming aware of his mathematical abilities, the life of the army was unacceptable to Descartes. However, he remained a soldier upon the influence of his family and tradition.

In 1621, Descartes resigned from the army and traveled extensively for five years. During this period, he continued studying pure mathematics. Then in 1626, he settled in Paris where he found himself constructing optical (eye) instruments. Finally, in 1628, he devoted his life to seeking the truth about the science of nature.

At that point, he moved to Holland. He remained there for twenty years, dedicating his time to philosophy and mathematics. During this time, Descartes had his work "Meditations on First Philosophy" published. It was in this work that he introduced the famous phrase "I think, therefore I am." Descartes hoped to use this statement to find truth by the use of reason. He sought to take complex ideas and break them down into simpler ones that were clear.

Descartes believed that mathematics was the only thing that is certain or true. Therefore, it could be used to reason the complex ideas of the universe into simpler ideas that were true. So, Descartes continued working in mathematics.

In 1638, La Geometrie was published. This work was responsible for making Descartes famous in mathematics history, because it was the invention of analytical geometry. Analytical geometry is basically applying algebra to geometry. Although this had been done before by other mathematicians earlier in the history of mathematics, Descartes introduced this theory about determining a point in a plane by pairs of real numbers (ordered pairs). This is known as the Cartesian Plane.

In 1649, Descartes was invited by the Queen to Sweden to work on mathematics. It is said that the Queen wanted to work on mathematics at an early hour in the mornings. Thus, Descartes had to rise early to reach the palace. Due to the cold climate, he developed pneumonia after just a few months and died on February 11, 1650.

Contributed by Lanetta Burdette


References

  1. http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/history/Mathematicians/Descartes.html
  2. E S Haldane. Descartes: His Life and Times (1966).
  3. J Ree. Descartes (1974).
  4. J R Vrooman. Rene Descartes: A Biography (1970).
  5. http://www.maths.tcd.ie/pub/HistMath/People/Descartes/RouseBall/RB_Descartes.html
  6. W. W. Rouse Ball. A Short Account of the History of Mathematics (4th edition, 1908).

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