In 1633 Rene Descartes, philosopher and geometer, then thirty-seven years old, was preparing for publication a great work, Le Monde et le Traite de lHomme, when at the end of November of that year the news arrived at Deventer, Holland where Descartes was staying at that time, of the persecution to which Galileo had been subjected in Rome. Not desirous of coming into conflict with the Catholic Church, Descartes decided against the publication of his work and, being also a practicing Catholic, he wrote to the mathematician Marin Mersenne:
Descartes never again picked up the manuscript, and it was not published until decades later, long after his death. Instead, in 1644, Descartes published his Principes de la Philosophie, in which he developed his theory of the mechanism of planetary motions. The universe is filled with subtle matter, some kind of effluvium, not much different from the ether of later authors; the sun by its rotation causes this effluvium to be concentrated in vortices that carry the planets around the sun on their orbits.
Descartes theory of vortices soon became the accepted teaching about the mechanism of the solar system.
Descartes himself proved, however, that philosophers who solve the mysteries of the world can commit fatal mistakes. After some deliberation and wavering, he accepted the insistent invitations to teach philosophy to Queen Christina of Sweden. As so many shallow persons, she was flattered to have the most famous philosopher of Europe at her feetand actually at her bedsidefor she ordered him to appear every morning at five to start the lesson. He cared for nothing more in his habits as for a late rising. The cold nights and early morning hours in the winter of Sweden broke his health, and four months after arrival in Sweden he died there from pneumonia.
Cartesian philosophy finds many followers until today. But his scheme
of things celestial has long been regarded as discredited: this teaching
prevailed on the continent in his lifetime and still in the lifetime of
Newton, but not much longer.