The Huygens Enigma

The seventeenth century produced a large number of excellent scientific researches and mathematicians in Europe, several of whom have been elevated to the status of giants of science or even gods of science by the writers of the popular history of science. Regular readers of this blog should be aware that I don’t believe in the gods of science, but even I am well aware that not all researches are equal and the contributions of some of them are much greater and more important than those of others, although the progress of science is dependent on the contributions of all the players in the science game. Keeping to the game analogy, one could describe them as playing in different leagues. One thing that has puzzled me for a number of years is what I regard as the Huygens enigma. There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the Dutch polymath Christiaan Huygens, who was born on the 14 April 1629, was a top premier league player but when those pop history of science writers list their gods they never include him, why not?

Christiaan Huygens by Caspar Netscher, Museum Hofwijck, Voorburg Source: Wikimedia Commons

Christiaan Huygens by Caspar Netscher, Museum Hofwijck, Voorburg
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Christiaan was the second son of Constantijn Huygens poet, composer, civil servant and diplomat and was thus born into the highest echelons of Dutch society. Sent to university to study law by his father Christiaan received a solid mathematical education from Frans van Schooten, one of the leading mathematicians in Europe and an expert on the new analytical mathematics of Descartes and Fermat. Already as a student Christiaan had contacts to top European intellectuals, including corresponding with Marine Mersenne, who confirmed his mathematical talent to his father. Later in his student life he also studied under the English mathematician John Pell.

Already at the age of twenty-five Christiaan dedicated himself to the scientific life, the family wealth sparing him the problem of having to earn a living. Whilst still a student he established himself as a respected mathematician with an international reputation and would later serve as one of Leibniz’s mathematics teachers. In his first publication at the age of twenty-two Huygens made an important contribution to the then relatively new discipline of probability. In physics Huygens originated what would become Newton’s second law of motion and in a century that saw the development of the concept of force it was Huygens’ work on centripetal force that led Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton to the derivation of the inverse square law of gravity. In fact in Book I of Principia, where Newton develops the physics that he goes on to use for his planetary theory in Book III, he only refers to centripetal force and never to the force of gravity. Huygens contribution to the Newtonian revolution in physics and astronomy was substantial and essential.

In astronomy Christiaan with his brother Constantijn ground their own lenses and constructed their own telescopes. He developed one of the early multiple lens eyepieces that improved astronomical observation immensely and which is still known as a Huygens eyepiece. He established his own reputation as an observational astronomer by discovering Titan the largest moon of Saturn. He also demonstrated that all the peculiar observations made over the years of Saturn since Galileo’s first observations in 1610 could be explained by assuming that Saturn had a system of rings, their appearance varying depending on where Saturn and the Earth were in their respective solar orbits at the time of observations. This discovery was made by theoretical analysis and not, as is often wrongly claimed, because he had a more powerful telescope.

In optics Huygens was, along with Robert Hooke, the co-creator of a wave theory of light, which he used to explain the phenomenon of double refraction in calcite crystals. Unfortunately Newton’s corpuscular theory of light initially won out over Huygens’ wave theory until Young and others confirmed Huygens’ theory in the nineteenth century.

Many people know Huygens best for his contributions to the history of clocks. He developed the first accurate pendulum clocks and was again along with Robert Hooke, who accused him of plagiarism, the developer of the balance spring watch. There were attempts to use his pendulum clocks to determine longitude but they proved not to be reliable enough under open sea conditions.

Huygens’ last book published posthumously, Cosmotheoros, is a speculation about the possibility of alien life in the cosmos.

Huygens made important contributions to many fields of science during the second half of the seventeenth century of which the above is but a brief and inadequate sketch and is the intellectual equal of any other seventeenth century researcher with the possible exceptions of Newton and Kepler but does not enjoy the historical reputation that he so obviously deserve, so why?

I personally think it is because there exists no philosophical system or magnum opus associated with his contributions to the development of science. He work is scattered over a series of relatively low-key publications and he offers no grand philosophical concept to pull his work together. Galileo had his Dialogo and his Discorsi, Descartes his Cartesian philosophy, Newton his Principia and his Opticks. It seems to be regarded as one of the gods of science it is not enough to be a top class premier league player who makes vital contributions across a wide spectrum of disciplines, one also has to have a literary symbol or philosophical methodology attached to ones name to be elevated into the history of science Olympus.

P.S. If you like most English speakers think that his name is pronounced something like Hoi-gens then you are wrong, it being Dutch is nothing like that as you can hear in this splendid Youtube video!


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Optics, History of Physics, History of science, Newton

13 responses to “The Huygens Enigma

  1. Highly fascinating, my dear. I don’t have the knowledge of history as you yourself do, but I’m always interested in your posts.

  2. “If you like most English speakers think that his name is pronounced something like Hoi-gens then you are wrong,”

    I think Dutch has more distinct vowel sounds than any other languages. Also more dictionary headwords.

  3. M Tucker

    It is my birthday today and when I first learned of Huygens and his work he naturally became one of my favorites. Two infamous events happened on April 14 in history that I had been aware of for a long time before I took history of mathematics and I was overjoyed to find a very positive event to help balance that out. Thanks for this wonderful post Thony. I really do enjoy visiting here. You just can’t beat the entertainment and fascination associated with a romp through the history of science. This is a great present for me.

  4. Pingback: The Huygens Enigma — The Renaissance Mathematicus | DEPOKPRESS.COM

  5. Reblogged this on Artes Mechanicae and commented:
    We all need a bit of Dutch scientist info. This is especially good material.

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  8. Pingback: History of science that had this (pedantic) historian grinding his teeth in the last week. | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  9. Guillermind

    Hi Mathematicus,

    I agree with most of what you said. Huygens was an exceptionally talented mathematician and physicist, as evidenced by his little-known but beautiful works (here I’m thinking of the “Horologium Oscillatorium” and “Traité de la Lumière”). However, Huygens had no taste for grand narratives, philosophical systems, or metaphysical schemes so prevalent in the shouting match that was the 17th century–which explains why someone like Galileo gets remembered so fondly, despite his much lesser talents. As Károly Simonyi went on to say, Huygens “was neither a philosopher nor a writer. He was a professional scholar, physicist, and mathematician […] a consummately critical and disciplined physicist, surpassed in his century only by Newton in the number of concrete results achieved.”

    To me, in terms of his scientific outlook and mathematical style, Huygens was already a dinosaur when he entered the scene: a majestic, imposing creature of another era, soon to go extinct by more agile but equally more arrogant marsupials. A Dutch Archimedes indeed, as his father and Mersenne so frequently called him.

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