Dutch astronomer, mathematician and physicist Christiaan Huygens is famous for his invention of the first accurate pendulum clock, as well as his discovery of the rings of Saturn and its largest moon, Titan. He also founded the wave theory of light known as “Huygens Construction,” which he outlined in his Treatise on Light.
Early Life of Christiaan Huygens, the ‘Little Archimedes’
Christiaan Huygens, (1629-1695), was born on April 14 in The Hague. He grew up in a wealthy environment, rich in both culture and intellectual pursuits. His father, Constantin Huygens, was a diplomat of the Dutch Republic, patron of the arts, composer and poet. Christiaan grew up exposed to distinguished visitors at home, such as the painter Rembrandt, English poet John Donne, and significantly for him, the great philosopher and mathematician René Descartes.
The influence of these men on young Christiaan was instrumental in the development of his lifelong love for art, music, law, engineering, and above all, mathematics. His father called him “mon Archimede” (“my Archimedes”). Christiaan was also an excellent card and billiard player, anda top-class rider.
At the young age of 16, he entered the university and intensely focused on mathematics and law. He also started writing his treatises on major mathematical problems at this time.
Huygens The Stargazer
Not long after he joined the university, Huygens became interested in the skies. In order to get a clear view of the surrounding planetary bodies, he developed one of the best lenses for telescopes of the time. Using his lenses, he discovered Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. The following year he made another astronomical discovery; the rings of Saturn. Galileo actually observed Saturn’s rings in his telescopic discoveries prior to Huygens’ discovery, but could not tell what they were. Huygens had a better telescope, however, and was the first to identify them as rings.
Working in astronomy demanded accurate timekeeping, and in that year, Huygens developed the pendulum clock with increased accuracy of time measurement. This is described in his famous book Horologium.
Celebrity Status, Scientists’ Scientist
Huygens’ reputation spread fast, and when he went to Paris in 1660, he was instantly a celebrity. He became a member of the circle of the best thinkers of the day, including the great French mathematician Blaise Pascal, then Sorbiere and Carcavi. The following year, he went to London and showed the English scientists his telescopes. Two years later, Huygens was invited to join the prestigious Royal Society. He then became a founding member of the Académie Royale des Sciences, the equivalent of the Royal Society. He became the president of the Académie in 1672, an extraordinary honor for a Dutchman at the time.
Ill Health in Last Years
Perhaps from overwork, Huygens was constantly ill. From Paris, he returned to Holland in 1670. Some years later, he had to give up his position in the French Académie. He also made a return visit to London and met Isaac Newton there. The scientists admired one another, and held one another in high esteem.
Cosmotheoros, published posthumously, was his last work. It was the first serious scientific book on the idea of a gigantic universe populated with ‘so many Suns, so many Earths…’ More startling at that point in time were his discussions of the possibility of extraterrestrial life, something that took more than three centuries for scientists to seriously investigate, although he was much admired in his day.
Ellyard, David. Who Disovered What When. Sydney: New Holland (2005)
Farndon, John and Alex Woolf, Anne Rooney and Liz Gogerly. The Great Scientist. Capella (2005)
McGovern, Una, Editor. Chambers Biographical Dictionary. Chambers Publishers (2002)
Originally published in Suite101
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