For a while, Amir Aczel's Fermat's Last Theorem seemed to be everywhere. Proof that no one can predict the next bestseller, this surprisingly popular book involved the decidedly noncommercial topic of mathematics. Aczel has also written about Einstein, gambling, the Kabbalah, the compass, the pendulum all sorts of subjects related to physics and math. His latest effort is Descartes's Secret Notebook: A True Tale of Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Quest to Understand the Universe, a fascinating look at a scientist whose work has surprisingly strong echoes in contemporary life.
RenÅ½ Descartes was a 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician. Brilliant, versatile and pithy ("I think, therefore I am"), he not only influenced each field he entered, he has for centuries been influencing fields he could never have imagined. Aczel's contagious enthusiasm for his subject is always present. He begins by explaining how many aspects of our daily lives owe thanks to Descartes from every pixel on your computer screen to the Global Positioning System that many cars now carry. Each employs Cartesian coordinate geometry, "a system of crisscrossed parallel lines, in two, three, or more dimensions, that allows us to describe numerically the position of a point in space."Descartes apparently belonged to the Rosicrucians, an ancient occult brotherhood worthy of a Monty Python movie. When Descartes died, he left behind a secret notebook, which the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Liebniz sought for years and finally found. Aczel takes off in Liebniz's footsteps, in hot pursuit of answers to questions that might not seem important until you get caught up in Aczel's story and in Descartes' life and tragic early death.
Aczel is a lucid explainer of topics that in lesser hands would remain murky and obscure. His workmanlike prose and brisk approach take the reader quickly through historical and scholarly puzzles, always keeping in mind the human story behind them. Along the way, his own fascination promotes his informal third-person narration into a likable companion on this journey into a brilliant mind.