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Science Books

November 24, 2005

Descartes' Secret Notebook: A True Tale of Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Quest to Understand the Universe
Amir D. Aczel (2005)
ISBN: 0767920333

He may be most celebrated for declaring, "Cogito, ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am), but it seems that René Descartes (1596-1650) still had to jot down a note or two just to make sure that he really did exist. Amir Aczel, Los Angeles Times Book Award nominee and author of the international bestseller Fermat's Last Theorem, uncovers a mysterious mind at work in Descartes. The plot thickens in Aczel's historical come biographical text, as we discover that Descartes had a hidden notebook comprised of 16 coded pages. Why were they coded? Well, it appears that Descartes was a member of the secretive occult brotherhood of the Rosicrucians. Unfortunately, analysts no longer have access to the original 16 pages of Descartes' notebook, but this was not before renowned mathematician Gottfried Leibniz cast an eye over them. Leibniz had been on the trail of the notebook for some time, with his search eventually leading him to Paris where a friend of Descartes had the notebook in his possession. Leibniz only managed to copy a couple of pages of the notebook, but being the genius that he was, he apparently deciphered the code with ease. Leibniz's few translated pages are all that are left of Descartes' bizarre notebook. Aczel's masterful storytelling peppers the narrative with many clues as to why Descartes would have been so secretive about his ideas and social contacts during an age when small-mindedness and fanaticism were the norm. Science boffins who suspect that this book seems like another Dan Brown novel needn't be concerned. Descartes' Secret Notebook is not only a giant roller coaster of a novel, with some hot gypsies thrown in, but is also a fascinating glimpse at a legendary mind. Read the book and all will be revealed!

The Knife Man: The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery
Wendy Moore (2005)
ISBN: 0767916522

Just where would we be if not for people like John Hunter? Though little known outside medical circles, Hunter can be credited with having the tenacity, fiery curiosity and strength of character needed to revolutionize surgical techniques during the 18th century. Wendy Moore, an established writer and journalist for publications such as the Guardian, Observer, and the British Medical Journal, paints Hunter in a manner true to the Jekyll and Hyde mystique. A man considered both crude and unorthodox, as well as being a staunch empiricist whose understanding of anatomy was second-to-none. Living in a period when tradition and mysticism still held sway among the medical profession, Hunter questioned anything and everything that he thought couldn't stand up to rigorous experimentation. Unfortunately, neither his sharp tongue nor his pioneering methods seemed to win him many friends among his peers. Moore posits the likely explanation that Hunter was just too far ahead of his time, and that he was considered an aberration by some in the medical profession. Ironically, it was Hunter's gruesome and relentless "Hyde" like activities, such as dissecting countless cadavers and (living) animals, that has allowed modern medicine to advance as far as it has. In this respect, The Knife Man may have you pondering on some of the more controversial dilemmas that medicine faces today. Hunter was also ahead of his time in other respects, too. As an avid naturalist, Hunter gave Charles Darwin a run for his money on the origins of life 60 years prior to Darwin publishing his theory of evolution. Engagingly written, The Knife Man is an important and detailed historical documentation of one of the least known exceptional people in history.

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