My interest in both history and math has led me to readings in which the name René Descartes is of frequent mention. Upon my acceptance of a new job here at the Melville Post, I decided for my first assignment to conduct an Interview with Mr. Descartes, if possible, and publish the result. After many phone calls and letters I was finally able to arrange a meeting. I found my time with Mr. Descartes to be very interesting and well spent. It is my hope that in reading this article you will find as much amazement and appreciation in the genius of this man as I did.
Q: When were you born?
A: I was born near Tours on March 31, 1596.
Q: Where did you receive your childhood education?
A: I was sent at the age of 8 years old to the Jesuit School at La Fleche. While at the school I studied classics, logic, and traditional Aristotelian philosophy. In addition to those subjects, I learned mathematics from the books of Clavius. Although I enjoyed my time at the school very much, and I hold it in very high regard, it also made me understand how little I really knew. The only subject that I came to see as satisfactory was the study of mathematics.
Q: What did you do after completing your studies at La Fleche?
A: Well, I left the school in 1612 and went to Paris. While in Paris I renewed my schoolboy friendship with Mersenne, and together we spent the next two years completely involved in the study of mathematics. Then, at the end of 1616, being pushed by my parents, I joined the army of Prince Maurice of Orange (in the Netherlands) and became a soldier. Around 1618 I believe, I began to study mathematics once again under the Dutch scientist Isaac Beekman, who I had met one day walking through the streets when he translated a Dutch placard for me that turned out to be a math problem. After a couple years in Holland, I once again continued on with my travels, joining the Bavarian army. It was during my time with this army that I was able to see parts of Europe that I never thought that I would make it to, like Hungary, Germany, Italy, and France. After so much time running around the continent, however, I decided that I wanted to settle down, and I chose to live in Holland because I believed that it would give me the intellectual freedom that I desired. In Holland, I spent 20 years devoting all my time to philosophy and mathematics.
Q: Was there a certain time when you realized that you wanted to spend your life studying mathematics?
A: It's funny that you ask because surprisingly there was. While still in the Bavarian army on November 10, 1619, a very important date to me, I had a dream that gave me my first ideas of analytical geometry and my new philosophy. Looking back, I feel that this is when realized that I was a mathematician and that my purpose in life was to study math.
Q: What exactly is this analytical geometry that you mentioned, and how did you contribute to its development?
A: Well it is sometimes said that analytical geometry is simply the application of algebra to geometry, but there is so much more to it. That simple definition had already been achieved by such mathematical figures as Archimedes, and by now it has become the standard method of procedure. However, I took it farther by seeing that a point in a plane can be completely determined as long as its distances, x and y, from two fixed lines drawn at right angles in the plane are given. To make this more understandable, it is more familiar to people as the interpretation of positive and negative values, and the notion that in a plane (x,y) can be satisfied by an infinite number of values of x and y, as long as they are real numbers and can be graphed on the Cartesian plane. For example, the equation of a circle is (x-h)2 + (y-k)2 = r2 in which (h,k) is the center point. Therefore, if you choose any point on the circle and plug the values into this equation, it will always come out equal.
I also came to realize the values of x and y determine the coordinates of a number of points which form a curve, of which the equation f(x,y) = 0 expressed a geometrical property that is true of the curve at every point on it. Every single point on the curve satisfies the same equation. The equation of the graph is what constitutes the relationship between x and y. Although I believe that a point in space can be similarly determined by three coordinates in an equation, instead of only two, I have decided to continue to focus my attention to plane curves.
Q: How have you recorded you results, findings, and ideas? Have you created any records so that your work can be used in later times?
A: Of course. I believe my most important mathematical work is Geometrie. It is divided into three books. The first two are concerned only with analytical geometry, and the third includes an additional analysis of the algebra that is currently used by many mathematicians. I hope that in the future mathematicians will look back at my works for help and study.
Q: I am sure they will Mr. Descartes. Thank you very much for your time, I would just like to say that your achievements are a great part of our world today, and I am sure you will maintain great influence in eras that have yet to come.
Ball, Rouse W.W. "René Descartes
1596-1650." A Short Account of the History of
Mathematics, 4th ed., 1908.
"René Descartes." Encyclopedia
"René Descartes." The
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophers.