Introducing Mathematicians from History 4 : René Descartes

In blog 4 of our famous mathematicians series an Oxford Home Schooling tutor looks at the life and work of René Descartes.

Introducing Mathematicians from History 4 : René Descartes

When and where did he live?

Descartes was born in France in 1596. He also lived in the Netherlands and Germany. Descartes is generally believed to have died of pneumonia in Sweden in 1650 although some people believe he was poisoned because of his religious beliefs.

Why is he famous?

Descartes was the first person to draw graphs to represent functions. The system of x and y coordinates we use today at Key Stage 3 and GCSE level for plotting graphs is named Cartesian Coordinates after him.

Unusual facts

You may also have heard one of Descartes’ sayings: “Cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am). He was a great philosopher but some of his writings got him into a lot of trouble and in 1633 the Pope placed his works on a list of prohibited books.

Links to modern mathematics

In addition to introducing coordinates Descartes was one of the first people to use a superscript to represent a power (for example the small 2 in x²). He also chose to use the symbols x, y and z to represent unknowns in algebra. It is thought that x became the default letter to use in mathematics for this purpose simply because it appears least often in written French and the printer publishing Descartes’ work therefore found it easier to use. This has had an impact on the English language as X (an unknown) appears in words such as X-ray and X-files (Bellos, 2010 Alex’s Adventures in Numberland ).

Debby Gill


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