Foundations of Science

, Volume 19, Issue 1, pp 35-51

First online:

Algebraic Collisions

Challenging Descartes with Cartesian Tools
  • Scott J. HyslopAffiliated withHistory and Philosophy of Science, Indiana University Email author 

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Algebraic equations in the tradition of Descartes and Frans Van Schooten accompany Christiaan Huygens’s early work on collision, which later would be reorganized and presented as De motu corporum ex percussione. Huygens produced the equations at the same time as his announcement of his rejection of Descartes’s rules of collision. Never intended for publication, the equations appear to have been used as preliminary scaffolding on which to build his critiques of Descartes’s physics. Additionally, Huygens used algebraic equations of this form to accurately predict the speeds of bodies after collision in experiments carried out at the Royal Society. Despite their deceptive simplicity, Huygens’s algebraic equations pose significant conceptual problems both mathematically and for their physical interpretation especially for negative speeds; they may very well have been the source of a new principle, the conservation of quantity of motion with direction.


Algebra Rules of collision Christiaan Huygens René Descartes Quantity of motion