For many decades the popular narrative version of the scientific revolution started in Poland/Germany with Copernicus moving on through Tycho in Denmark, Kepler in Germany/Austria, Galileo et al in Northern Italy, Descartes, Pascal, Mersenne etc., in France and then Newton and his supporters and opponents in London. The Netherlands simply didn’t get a look in except for Christiaan Huygens, who was treated as a sort of honorary Frenchman. As I’ve tried to show over the years the Netherlands and its scholars–Gemma Frisius, Simon Stephen, Isaac Beeckman, the Snels, and the cartographers–actually played a central role in the evolution of the sciences during the Early Modern Period. In more recent years efforts have been made to increase the historical coverage of the contributions made in the Netherlands, a prominent example being Harold J Cook’s Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine and Science in the Dutch Golden Age.
A very strange anomaly in the #histSTM coverage concerns Christiaan Huygens, who without doubt belongs to the seventeenth century scientific elite. Whereas my bookcase has an entire row of Newton biographies, and another row of Galileo biographies and in both cases there are others that I’ve read but don’t own. The Kepler collection is somewhat smaller but it is still a collection. I have no idea how many Descartes biographies exist but it is quite a large number. But for Christiaan Huygens there is almost nothing available in English. The only biography I’m aware of is the English translation of Cornelis Dirk Andriesse’s scientific biography of Christiaan Huygens, The Man Behind the Principle. I read this several years ago and must admit I found it somewhat lacking. This being the case, great expectation have been raised by the announcement of a new Huygens biography by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, Dutch Light: Christiaan Huygens and the Making of Science in Europe.
So does Aldersey-Williams fulfil those expectations? Does he deliver the goods? Yes and no, on the whole he has researched and written what is mostly an excellent biography of the Netherland’s greatest scientist of the Early Modern Period but it is in my opinion marred by sloppy history of science fact checking that probably won’t be noticed by the average reader but being the notorious #histSTM pedant that I am I simply can’t and won’t ignore.
My regular readers will known that I describe myself as a narrative contextual historian of science and I personally believe that if we are to understand how science has evolved historical then we have to tell that story with its complete context. This being the case I’m very happy to report that Aldersey-Williams is very much a narrative contextual historian, who tells the complete story of Christiaan Huygens life within its wider context and not just offering up a list of his scientific achievements. In fact what the reader gets for his money is not just a biography of Christiaan but also a biography of his entire family with some members being given more space than other. In particular it is a full biography of Christiaan and his father Constantijn, who played a significant and central role in shaping Christiaan’s life.
The book opens by setting the scientific scene in the early seventeenth-century Netherlands. We get introduced to those scientists, who laid the scientific foundations on which Christiaan would later build. In particular we get introduced to Simon Steven, who shaped the very practice orientated science and technology of the Early Modern Netherlands. We also meet other important and influential figures such as Hans Lipperhey, Isaac Beeckman, Willebrord Snel, Cornelius Drebbel and others.
There now follows what might be termed a book within a book as Aldersey-Williams delivers up a very comprehensive biography of Constantijn Huygens diplomat, poet, composer, art lover and patron and all round lover of knowledge. Constantijn was interested in and fascinated by almost everything both scientific and technological. His interest was never superficial but was both theoretical and practical. For example he was not only interested in the newly invented instruments, the telescope and the microscope, but he also took instruction in how to grind lenses and that from the best in the business. Likewise his love for art extended beyond buying paintings and patronising artists, such as Rembrandt, but to developing his own skills in drawing and painting. Here Aldersey-Williams introduces us to the Dutch term ‘kenner’ (which is the same in German), which refers to someone such Constantijn Huygens, whose knowledge of a subject is both theoretical and practical. Constantijn Huygens married Suzanna von Baerle for love and they had five children over ten years, four sons and a daughter, Christiaan was the second oldest, and Suzanna died giving birth to their daughter, also named Suzanna.
Constantijn Huygens brought up his children himself educating them in his own polymathic diversity with the help of tutors. When older the boys spent brief periods at various universities but were largely home educated. We now follow the young Christiaan and his older brother, also Constantijn, through their formative young years. The two oldest boys remained close and much of Christiaan’s astronomical work was carried out in tandem with his older brother. We follow Christiaan’s early mathematical work and his introduction into the intellectual circles of Europe, especially France and England, through his father’s widespread network of acquaintances. From the beginning Christiaan was set up to become either a diplomat, like his father, grandfather and brothers, or a scientist and it is the latter course that he followed.
Aldersey-Williams devotes an entire chapter to Christiaan’s telescopic observations of Saturn, with a telescope that he and Constantijn the younger constructed and his reputation making discovery of Titan the largest of Saturn’s moons, and the first discovered, and his determination that the strange shapes first observed by Galileo around Saturn were in fact rings. These astronomical discoveries established him as one of Europe’s leading astronomers. The following chapter deals with Huygens’ invention of the pendulum clock and his excursions into the then comparatively new probability theory.
Saturn and the pendulum clock established the still comparatively young Huygens as a leading light in European science in the second half of the seventeenth century and Aldersey-Williams now takes us through ups and downs of the rest of Christiaan’s life. His contact with and election to the Royal Society in London, as its first foreign member. His appointment by Jean-Baptist Colbert, the French First Minister of State, as a founding member of the Académie des sciences with a fairy generous royal pension from Louis XIV. His sixteen years in Paris, until the death of Colbert, during which he was generally acknowledged as Europe’s leading natural philosopher. His initial dispute over light with the young and comparatively unknown Newton and his tutorship of the equally young and unknown Leibniz. His fall from grace following Colbert’s death and his reluctant return to the Netherlands. The last lonely decade of his life in the Netherlands and his desire for a return to the scientific bustle of London or Paris. His partial rapprochement with Newton following the publication of the Principia. Closing with the posthumous publication of his works on gravity and optics. This narrative is interwoven with episodes from the lives of Constantijn the father and Constantijn his elder brother, in particular the convoluted politics of the Netherlands and England created by William of Orange, whose secretary was Constantijn, the younger, taking the English throne together with his wife Mary Stewart. Christiaan’s other siblings also make occasional appearances in letters and in person.
Aldersey-Williams has written a monumental biography of two generations of the Huygens family, who played major roles in the culture, politics and science of seventeenth century Europe. With a light, excellent narrative style the book is a pleasure to read. It is illustrated with 37 small grey in grey prints and 35 colour plates, which I can’t comment on, as my review proof copy doesn’t contain them. There are informative footnotes scattered through out the text and the, by me hated, hanging endnotes referring to the sources of direct quotes in the text. Here I had the experience more than once of looking up what I took to be a direct quote only to discover that it was not listed. There is an extensive bibliography of both primary and secondary sources and I assume an extensive index given the number of blank pages in my proof copy. There were several times when I was reading when I had wished that the index were actually there.
On the whole I would be tempted to give this book a glowing recommendation were it not for a series of specific history of science errors that simple shouldn’t be there and some general tendencies that I will now detail.
Near the beginning Aldersey-Williams tells us that ‘Stevin’s recommendation to use decimals in arithmetical calculations in place of vulgar fractions which could have any denominator [was] surely the sand-yacht of accountancy … Thirty years later, the Scottish mathematician John Napier streamlined Stevin’s notation by introducing the familiar comma or point to separate off the fractional part…” As is all too often the case no mention is made of the fact that Chinese and Arabic mathematicians had been using decimal fractions literally centuries before Stevin came up with the concept. In my opinion we must get away from this Eurocentric presentation of the history of science. Also the Jesuit mathematician Christoph Clavius introduced the decimal point less than ten years after Stevin’s introduction of decimal fractions, well ahead of Napier, as was its use by Pitiscus in 1608, the probable source of Napier’s use.
We also get told when discussing the Dutch vocabulary that Stevin created for science that, “Chemistry becomes scheikunde, the art of separation, an acknowledgement of the beginnings of a shift towards an analytical science, and a useful alternative to chemie that severs the etymological connections with disreputable alchemy.” This displays a complete lack of knowledge of alchemy in which virtually all the analytical methods used in chemistry were developed. The art of separation is a perfectly good term from the alchemy that existed when Stevin was creating his Dutch scientific vocabulary. Throughout his book Aldersey-Williams makes disparaging remarks about both alchemy and astrology, neither of which was practiced by any of the Huygens family, which make very clear that he doesn’t actually know very much about either discipline or the role that they played in the evolution of western science, astrology right down to the time of Huygens and Newton and alchemy well into the eighteenth century. For example, the phlogiston theory one of the most productive chemical theories in the eighteenth century had deep roots in alchemy.
Aldersey-Williams account of the origins of the telescope is a bit mangled but acceptable except for the following: “By the following spring, spyglasses were on sale in Paris, from where one was taken to Galileo in Padua. He tweaked the design, claimed the invention as his own, and made dozens of prototypes, passing on his rejects so that very soon even more people were made aware of this instrument capable of bringing the distant close.”
Firstly Galileo claimed that he devised the principle of the telescope and constructed his own purely on verbal descriptions without having actually seen one but purely on his knowledge of optics. He never claimed the invention as his own and the following sentence is pure rubbish. Galileo and his instrument maker produced rather limited numbers of comparatively high quality telescopes that he then presented as gifts to prominent political and Church figures.
Next up we have Willebrord Snel’s use of triangulation. Aldersey-Williams tells us, “ This was the first practical survey of a significant area of land, and it soon inspired similar exercises in England, Italy and France.” It wasn’t. Mercator had previously surveyed the Duchy of Lorraine and Tycho Brahe his island of Hven before Snel began his surveying in the Netherlands. This is however not the worst, Aldersey-Williams tells us correctly that Snel’s survey stretched from Alkmaar to Bergen-op-Zoom “nearly 150 kilometres to the south along approximately the same meridian.” Then comes some incredible rubbish, “By comparing the apparent height of his survey poles observed at distance with their known height, he was able to estimate the size of the Earth!”
What Snel actually did, was having first accurately determined the length of a stretch of his meridian using triangulation, the purpose of his survey and not cartography, he determined astronomically the latitude of the end points. Having calculated the difference in latitudes it is then a fairly simple exercise to determine the length of one degree of latitude, although for a truly accurate determination one has to adjust for the curvature of the Earth.
Next up with have the obligatory Leonard reference. Why do pop history of science books always have a, usually erroneous, Leonardo reference? Here we are concerned with the camera obscura, Aldersey-Williams writes: “…Leonardo da Vinci gave one of the first accurate descriptions of such a design.” Ibn al-Haytham gave accurate descriptions of the camera obscura and its use as a scientific instrument about four hundred and fifty years before Leonardo was born in a book that was translated into Latin two hundred and fifty years before Leonardo’s birth. Add to this the fact that Leonardo’s description of the camera obscura was first published late in the eighteenth century and mentioning Leonardo in this context becomes a historical irrelevance. The first published European illustration of a camera obscura was Gemma Frisius in 1545.
When discussing Descartes, a friend of Constantijn senior and that principle natural philosophical influence on Christiaan we get a classic history of mathematics failure. Aldersey-Williams tells us, “His best known innovation, of what are now called Cartesian coordinates…” Whilst Descartes did indeed cofound, with Pierre Fermat, modern
algebraic analytical geometry, Cartesian coordinates were first introduced by Frans van Schooten junior, who of course features strongly in the book as Christiaan’s mathematics teacher.
Along the same lines as the inaccurate camera obscura information we have the following gem, “When applied to a bisected circle (a special case of the ellipse), this yielded a new value, accurate to nine decimal places, of the mathematical constant π, which had not been improved since Archimedes” [my emphasis] There is a whole history of the improvements in the calculation of π between Archimedes and Huygens but there is one specific example that is, within the context of this book, extremely embarrassing.
Early on when dealing with Simon Stevin, Aldersey-Williams mentions that Stevin set up a school for engineering, at the request of Maurits of Nassau, at the University of Leiden in 1600. The first professor of mathematics at this institution was Ludolph van Ceulen (1540–1610), who also taught fencing, a fact that I find fascinating. Ludolph van Ceulen is famous in the history of mathematics for the fact that his greatest mathematical achievement, the Ludophine number, is inscribed on his tombstone, the accurate calculation of π to thirty-five decimal places, 3.14159265358979323846264338327950288…
Next up we have Christiaan’s correction of Descartes laws of collision. Here Aldersey-Williams writes something that is totally baffling, “The work [his new theory of collision] only appeared in a paper in the French Journal des Sçavans in 1669, a few years after Newton’s laws of motion [my emphasis]…” Newton’s laws of motion were first published in his Principia in 1687!
Having had the obligatory Leonardo reference we now have the obligatory erroneous Galileo mathematics and the laws of nature reference, “Galileo was the first to fully understand that mathematics could be used to describe certain laws of nature…” I’ve written so much on this that I’ll just say here, no he wasn’t! You can read about Robert Grosseteste’s statement of the role of mathematics in laws of nature already in the thirteenth century, here.
Writing about Christiaan’s solution of the puzzle of Saturn’s rings, Aldersey-Williams say, “Many theories had been advanced in the few years since telescopes had revealed the planet’s strange truth.” The almost five decades between Galileo’s first observation of the rings and Christiaan’s solution of the riddle is I think more than a few years.
Moving on Aldersey-Williams tells us that, “For many however, there remained powerful reasons to reject Huygens’ discovery. First of all, it challenged the accepted idea inherited from Greek philosophers that the solar system consisted exclusively of perfect spherical bodies occupying ideal circular orbits to one another.” You would have been hard put to it to find a serious astronomer ín 1660, who still ascribed to this Aristotelian cosmology.
The next historical glitch concerns, once again, Galileo. We read, “He dedicated the work [Systema Saturnium] to Prince Leopoldo de’ Medici, who was patron of the Accademia del Cimento in Florence, who had supported the work of Huygens’ most illustrious forebear, Galileo.” Ignoring the sycophantic description of Galileo, one should perhaps point out that the Accademia del Cimento was founded in 1657 that is fifteen years after Galileo’s death and so did not support his work. It was in fact founded by a group of Galileo’s disciples and was dedicated to continuing to work in his style, not quite the same thing.
Galileo crops up again, “the real power of Huygens’ interpretation was its ability to explain those times when Saturn’s ‘handles’ simply disappeared from view, as they had done in 1642, finally defeating the aged Galileo’s attempts to understand the planet…” In 1642, the year of his death, Galileo had been completely blind for four years and had actually given up his interest in astronomy several years earlier.
Moving on to Christiaan’s invention of the pendulum clock and the problem of determining longitude Aldersey-Williams tells us, “The Alkmaar surveyor Adriaan Metius, brother of the telescope pioneer Jacob, had proposed as long ago as 1614 that some sort of seagoing clock might provide the solution to this perennial problem of navigators…” I feel honour bound to point out that Adriaan Metius was slightly more than simply a surveyor, he was professor for mathematics at the University of Franeker. However the real problem here is that the clock solution to the problem of longitude was first proposed by Gemma Frisius in an appendix added in 1530, to his highly popular and widely read editions of Peter Apian’s Cosmographia. The book was the biggest selling and most widely read textbook on practical mathematics throughout the sixteenth and well into the seventeenth century so Huygens would probably have known of Frisius’ priority.
Having dealt with the factual #histSTM errors I will now turn to more general criticisms. On several occasions Aldersey-Williams, whilst acknowledging problems with using the concept in the seventeenth century, tries to present Huygens as the first ‘professional scientist’. Unfortunately, I personally can’t see that Huygens was in anyway more or less of a professional scientist than Tycho, Kepler or Galileo, for example, or quite a long list of others I could name. He also wants to sell him as the ‘first ever’ state’s scientist following his appointment to the Académie des sciences and the accompanying state pension from the king. Once again the term is equally applicable to Tycho first in Denmark and then, if you consider the Holy Roman Empire a state, again in Prague as Imperial Mathematicus, a post that Kepler inherited. Galileo was state ‘scientist’ under the de’ Medici in the Republic of Florence. One could even argue that Nicolas Kratzer was a state scientist when he was appointed to the English court under Henry VIII. There are other examples.
Aldersey-Williams’ next attempt to define Huygens’ status as a scientist left me somewhat speechless, “Yet it is surely enough that Huygens be remembered for what he was, a mere problem solver indeed: pragmatic, eclectic and synthetic and ready to settle for the most probable rather than hold out for the absolutely certain – in other words. What we expect a scientist to be today.” My ten years as a history and philosophy of science student want to scream, “Is that what we really expect?” I’m not even going to go there, as I would need a new blog post even longer than this one.
Aldersey-Williams also tries to present Huygens as some sort of new trans European savant of a type that had not previously existed. Signifying cooperation across borders, beliefs and politics. This is of course rubbish. The sort of trans European cooperation that Huygens was involved in was just as prevalent at the beginning of the seventeenth century in the era of Tycho, Kepler, Galileo, et al. Even then it was not new it was also very strong during the Renaissance with natural philosophers and mathematici corresponding, cooperating, visiting each other, and teaching at universities through out the whole of Europe. Even in the Renaissance, science in Europe knew no borders. It’s the origin of the concept, The Republic of Letters. I suspect my history of medieval science friend would say the same about their period.
In the partial rapprochement between Huygens and Newton following the Publication of the latter’s Principia leads Aldersey-Williams to claim that a new general level of reasonable discussion had entered scientific debate towards the end of the seventeenth century. Scientists, above all Newton, were still going at each other hammer and tongs in the eighteenth century, so it was all just a pipe dream.
Aldersey-Williams sees Huygens lack of public profile, as a result of being in Newton’s shadow like Hooke and others. He suggests that popular perception only allows for one scientific genius in a generation citing Galileo’s ascendance over Kepler, who he correctly sees as the more important, as another example. In this, I agree with him, however he tries too hard to put Huygens on the same level as Newton as a scientist, as if scientific achievement were a pissing contest. I think we should consider a much wider range of scientists when viewing the history of science but I also seriously think that no matter how great his contributions Huygens can’t really match up with Newton. Although his Horologium oscillatorium sive de motu pendularium was a very important contribution to the debate on force and motion, it can’t be compared to Newton’s Principia. Even if Huygens did propagate a wave theory of light his Traité de la lumière is not on a level with Newton’s Opticks. He does have his Systema saturniumbut as far as telescopes are concerned Newton’s reflector was a more important contribution than any of Huygens refractor telescopes. Most significant, Newton made massive contributions to the development of mathematics, Huygens almost nothing.
Talking of Newton, in his discussion of Huygens rather heterodox religious views Aldersey-Williams discussing unorthodox religious views of other leading scientists makes the following comment, “Newton was an antitrinitarian, for which he was considered a heretic in his lifetime, as well as being interested in occultism and alchemy.” Newton was not considered a heretic in his lifetime because he kept his antitrinitarian views to himself. Alchemy yes, but occultism, Newton?
I do have one final general criticism of Aldersey-Williams’ book. My impression was that the passages on fine art, poetry and music, all very important aspects of the life of the Huygens family, are dealt with in much greater depth and detail than the science, which I found more than somewhat peculiar in a book with the subtitle, The Making of Science in Europe. I’m not suggesting that the fine art, poetry and music coverage should be less but that the science content should have been brought up to the same level.
Despite the long list of negative comments in my review I think this is basically a very good book that could in fact have been an excellent book with some changes. Summa summarum it is a flawed masterpiece. It is an absolute must read for anybody interested in the life of Christiaan Huygens or his father Constantijn or the whole Huygens clan. It is also an important read for those interested in Dutch culture and politics in the seventeenth century and for all those interested in the history of European science in the same period. It would be desirable if more works with the wide-ranging scope and vision of Aldersey-Williams volume were written but please without the #histSTM errors.