My first introduction to Descartes’s name was when I was studying school geometry. I loved studying two dimensional and three dimensional representations of world objects and their mathematical equations in Cartesian coordinates. I must confess however that I really did not know or cared about the origin of the name for the coordinate system. That was the case for almost all scientific and mathematical concepts and theories that I learned at the time. It was easy to comprehend the subject matter in geometry by coupling my visual senses with my intellectual imagination. Mathematical relationships between lines, areas and shapes even in their derivative forms were not so difficult to visualize.
My intellectual ability to grasp concepts and ideas in physics however became shaky when I started learning Relativity Theory in college. Theoretical physicists had added the fourth dimension of time to three dimensional space to explain relativity. The time dimension broke the bond between my visual senses and intellectual imagination.
Fortunately, I completed my formal education, especially in physics at that point. I later did not have to be so much concerned about comprehending further theories in theoretical physics in my professional career. I was content with occasionally watching PBS NOVA programs with idle curiosity. In the quest to find an universal theory combining relativity and quantum mechanics, physicists have been developing new theories like String Theory. In this process, they have been adding even more dimensions to their mathematical models beyond the four space time dimensions.
My intellectual understanding of String theory is perhaps best summarized in the following episode from the sitcom Big Bang Theory. Sheldon, in one of his dejected moods, tries to explain to Penny his difficulties in solving String theory. In the middle of his soliloquy, he has an epiphany that he could solve String theory if he could interpret strings in higher dimensions as sheets. His reluctant audience Penny is more interested in finding out how cheese was added inside her pizza slice. Feeling somewhat elated by the thought of ending Sheldon’s soliloquy, Penny quickly responds to his loud musing — “So have we found the solution? See, how long did it take!” After watching this dialog I realized that my intellectual imagination in comprehending new scientific theories has reduced to nothing but hollow laughter with amusement.
I write this as a side note reminder to myself, while I think about Descartes and his enlightenment philosophy. Descartes thought of his own limitations clearly. I need to be cognizant of coordinates of my own intellect beforehand, if and when I approach him.