Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Book Review: Descartes' Secret Notebook

Descartes' Secret Notebook: A True Tale of Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Quest to Understand the Universe
Amir Aczel
Biography, mathematics, philosophy

I've enjoyed many of Amir Aczel's books, but this one was a letdown. Mostly it's a capsule biography of René Descartes, written in young-adult prose. The titular notebook is only discussed for maybe twenty-five pages out of 200+, and its contents don't prove to be tremendously revelatory. The explanations of Descartes' union of algebra and geometry were good; there should have been more of them, though. Aczel also wastes a lot of time on what seem to me to be decidedly peripheral questions--whether Descartes was a Rosicrucian, for example. I expect the book would be better for younger readers, or readers with virtually no familiarity with the subject matter.

The same author's Pendulum: Léon Foucault and the Triumph of Science is one of his many good books. For a good Descartes book, try Russell Shorto's Descartes' Bones.


  1. Both of the Aczel books I read lately (Finding Zero and even more so Riddle of the Compass) had the same problem: insufficient discussion of the subject matter. Riddle of the Compass is more than half filler, even though it's only 160 pages and had to use large print and wide spacing to make it that far. It read like a term paper where the writer knew he didn't have enough material.

    1. Oh, you noticed the wide margins too, huh? Very disappointing.