René Descartes (1596–1650) was born in the town of La Haye in southern France. From an early age Descartes liked mathematics because of “the certainty of its results and the clarity of its reasoning.”He believed that in order to arrive at truth, one must begin by doubting everything, including one’s own existence; this led him to formulate perhaps the most well-known sentence in all of philosophy: “I think,therefore I am.” In his book Discourse on Method he described what is now called the Cartesian plane. This idea of combining algebra and geometry enabled mathematicians for the first time to “see” the equations they were studying. The philosopher John Stuart Mill called this invention “the greatest single step ever made in the progress of the exact sciences.”Descartes liked to get up late and spend the morning in bed thinking and writing. He invented the coordinate plane while lying in bed watching a fly crawl on the ceiling, reasoning that he could describe the exact location of the fly by knowing its distance from two perpendicular walls. In 1649 Descartes became the tutor of Queen Christina of Sweden. She liked her lessons at5 o’clock in the morning when, she said, her mind was sharpest. However, the change from his usual habits and the ice-cold library where they studied proved too much for him. In February 1650, after just two months of this, he caught pneumonia and died.
Department of GED