French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes.

René Descartes

(1596 - 1650)

Having taken a law degree from the University of Poitiers in 1616, René Descartes decided to abandon formal tutors and study “the book of the world.” He was visited by three dreams in 1619 that—he went on to say—revealed to him his destiny: later that year he invented analytic geometry and formulated a universal method of deductive reasoning. Around this time, Descartes became interested in the emergent Rosicrucian movement, later practicing medicine free of charge, one of the brotherhood’s tenets.

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Before the entire palette of modern mathematical notation existed, Johannes Kepler relied on musical notation to describe the planets’ rotation around the sun in his Harmonies of the World, published in 1619. The plus and minus signs were introduced in print in 1489 by Johann Widman, and the equal sign in 1557 by Robert Recorde, but the multiplication sign (×) was not introduced until 1631, by William Oughtred; modern exponential notation in 1637, by René Descartes; and the obelus (÷) to indicate division in 1659, by Johann Rahn.

Voices In Time

1645 | Holland

Tipping Point

René Descartes grasps the root of wonder.More

Issues Contributed