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Descartes's Lost Theorem


Web resources on Descartes include Rouse Ball's biography, and some of the philosophical texts through Great Books and the George Mason University Classics Dept., and a Mansfield University Math and Culture course page. Resources on Euler: a biography by Katerina Kechris of U.C.L.A., a Swarthmore Math Forum project on the Bridges of Koenigsberg. For references on polyhedral curvature see Thomas Banchoff's early research papers.

(Note: Reviews to the papers listed are in MathSciNet, available to subscribers.)


René Descartes

Somewhere in the years 1619-1621 René Descartes wrote an Elementary Treatise on Polyhedra, in which very near the beginning the following statement appears:

If four plane right angles are multiplied by the number of solid angles & from the product are subtracted 8 plane right angles, there remains the sum of all the plane angles which exist on the surface of that polyhedron.

For example, a right prism on a regular hexagonal base has twelve solid angles. Continuing with Descartes's terminology, but converting to degrees for the calculation (one plane right angle = 90 degrees):

      /       \
     /        /|    
    |\ _____ / |    
    | |     |  |    
    | |     | / 

Hexagonal prism has
twelve solid angles.
  • Four plane right angles multiplied by the number of solid angles = 48 plane right angles ( = 4320 degrees).
  • Subtracting 8 plane right angles (720 degrees) gives 3600 degrees.
  • The prism has two hexagonal and six rectangular faces.
    • Each of the six face angles of a regular hexagon measures 120 degrees; total for both hexagons = 12 x 120 = 1440 degrees.
    • Each of the four face angles of a rectangle measures 90 degrees; total for all six rectangles = 24 x 90 = 2160 degrees.
    The sum of all the plane angles which exist on the surface = 1440 + 2160 = 3600 degrees.

This remarkable theorem is not part of the history of mathematics. Descartes's Treatise was never published and lay hidden like a mathematical time capsule for over two hundred years.

In this column I will examine the statement quoted above (``Descartes's Lost Theorem'') and the surrounding material. They give us a look back into the mind of one of the inventors of modern mathematics at the beginning of his career, and they will give us a chance to examine some of the more interesting discoveries of the next two centuries, discoveries that are fundamental to geometry and topology as we know them today and which Descartes's geometric intuition allowed him to anticipate.


--Tony Phillips