Decartes’ life

Men of Mathematics

In this short video, Freeman Dyson recommends a book called “Men of Mathematics”. The book provides an insight into the lives and contributions of the greatest mathematicians, from Zeno to Poincaré.

Both Freeman Dyson and John Nash, two incredible mathematicians, have spoken about this book. Apparently, reading it encouraged them to pursue Mathematics as a path.
Knowing that “Men of Mathematics” has inspired incredibly smart people who in turn, inspire me, made me want to read it too. I hope that reading about the evolution of Mathematics will help me connect dots between certain areas within the subject and, as a result, make Mathematics as a whole less abstract.

Of course, the book is a product of the times in which it was written (1937). It is Europe-centered as it doesn’t include the lives of great Arabic and Hindu mathematicians. Also, several great female mathematicians have been omitted because they weren’t men. This was indubitably expected with a book title such as “Men of Mathematics”. Nevertheless, I still think there is a lot to learn from the book and I am excited to finish it.

Decartes’ life

The last chapter I read was about Decartes’ life. Decartes is an important figure in the world of mathematics because he developed the Cartesian or analytic geometry. He basically used algebra to describe geometry. There is more information about his mathematical legacy on this website.

Here are points, from the chapter, that I found interesting:

Morning reflections

As a child, Decartes had a delicate health and needed to rest more than his peers. Because of that, the rector of his school told him to lie in bed as long as he wanted in the morning. He could come to school when he felt like it. Decartes used that opportunity and spent his mornings in bed when he wished to think. Looking back, he remembered those long mornings of reflection as the source of his philosophy and mathematics.

This made me think about an article that I read a few months ago: Darwin Was a Slacker and You Should Be Too. In the article, the author argues that creativity and productivity are not a result of endless hours of work. According to him, the most creative and accomplished people only spend a few hours per day working on their projects. Passion and focus is just as important as the amount of time set aside for rest (aka sleeping, going for walks, meditating…) when it comes to success.

It made me reflect on the way that rest has affected me and my creativity. Personally, I know that I have learned a lot more in a single year after school than several school years combined. Could that perhaps be linked to rest and free time? I also believe that the best and most creative ideas I have ever had have arisen in calm environments.
I wonder, is the importance of rest taken seriously enough in our society? Maybe, the educational system and the way that we see work today doesn’t provide enough time for rest – source of reflection and creativity? Similarly, perhaps the overstimulated environment in which we live – (see this post) – doesn’t allow for that rest either?

The 3 dreams and War

I found it interesting to see that so much of history comes down to chance. For example, on November 10, 1619,  Decartes experienced three vivid dreams. They changed the course of his life as he believed that they were of supernatural origin. These dreams provided him with a mission in life: Decartes knew that he had to reform all knowledge – bring it together in one system of thought. He took this quest very seriously and, from that moment on, started his real exploration of mathematics and philosophy. I wonder, what would have happened had he not experienced, remembered or interpreted those three dreams the way that he did?
Similarly, Decartes loved war. He was involved in a numerous amount of wars and could have easily died as a young man.

Isn’t it fascinating to know that so much comes down to single instances? I know this is common sense but still, the chapter about Decartes’ life reminded me about the weirdness of life.


In spite of his rational skepticism, Decartes was very religious. Sometimes, sciences and religion didn’t go hand in hand. This, however, didn’t trigger any religious doubt in him. Interestingly, Decartes was, for example, convinced of the truth of the Copernican system. He even wrote a book called “Le Monde” which includes a heliocentric view of the solar system. Decartes knew that it contradicted the Church’s teachings but, it was impossible for him to give up either the Church or the Copernican system. He simply hoped and expected that they would both, in some very mystical way, someday, be proved right.

Fun fact

Decartes died in Sweden. He was sent to Stockholm, against his will, to be Queen Kristina’s philosophy teacher. Apparently, the two of them quickly realised that they did not like each other: “she did not like his mechanical philosophy, nor did he appreciate her interest in Ancient Greek”. After only a few lessons, Decartes died of pneumonia.


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