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Descartes's experimental journey past the prism and through the invisible world to the rainbow

Buchwald, Jed Z (2008) Descartes's experimental journey past the prism and through the invisible world to the rainbow. Annals of Science, 65 (1). pp. 1-46. ISSN 0003-3790. doi:10.1080/00033790701406982.

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Descartes's model for the invisible world has long seemed confined to explanations of known phenomena, with little if anything to offer concerning the empirical investigation of novel processes. Although he did perform experiments, the links between them and the Cartesian model remain difficult to pin down, not least because there are so very few. Indeed, the only account that Descartes ever developed which invokes his model in relation to both quantitative implications and to experiments is the one that he provided for the rainbow. There he described in considerable detail the appearances of colours generated by means of prisms in specific circumstances. We have reproduced these experiments with careful attention to Descartes's requirements. The results provide considerable insight into the otherwise fractured character of his printed discovery narrative. By combining reproduction with attention to the rhetorical structure of Descartes's presentation, we can show that he worked his model in conjunction with experiments to reach a fully quantitative account of the rainbow, including its colours as well as its geometry. In this one instance at least, Descartes produced just the sort of explanatory novelties that the young Newton later did in optics. That Descartes's results in respect to colour are in hindsight specious is of course irrelevant.

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Additional Information:© 2009 Informa plc. Revised paper accepted 1 February 2007. I thank an anonymous referee and John Schuster for their insightful and helpful. comments on a draft of this paper. Most of all, I thank Moti Fengold and Diana Kormos-Buchwald.
Subject Keywords:History & Philosophy of Mathematics; History of Engineering & Technology; History of Medicine; History of Science & Technology; Medical History.
Issue or Number:1
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:BUCaos08
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Official Citation:Buchwald, Jed Z.(2007)'Descartes's Experimental Journey Past the Prism and Through the Invisible World to the Rainbow',Annals of Science,65:1,1 — 46
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:13473
Deposited By: Judith J Nollar
Deposited On:22 May 2009 18:07
Last Modified:08 Nov 2021 22:38

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