British author and historian of science Hugh Aldersey-Williams has written a biography about Christiaan Huygens. From an interview with Aldersey-Williams:
In “Dutch Light”, biographer Hugh Aldersey-Williams lets the facts speak. Based on all his achievements, he hoists mathematician, physicist and astronomer Christiaan Huygens on the shield more than three centuries after his death. “He was the greatest scientist in 17th century Europe, in the nearly eighty years between Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton”, “said the British author and physicist. “Galileo was the giant on whose shoulders Huygens stood, Newton overshadowed Huygens’ genius”. This is an unjust judgment of history, because Huygens’ achievements surpass that of Newton – the greatest British scientist of all time – in some important respects.
Filled with incident, discovery, and revelation, Dutch Light is a vivid account of Christiaan Huygens’s remarkable life and career, but it is also nothing less than the story of the birth of modern science as we know it.
Europe’s greatest scientist during the latter half of the seventeenth century, Christiaan Huygens was a true polymath. A towering figure in the fields of astronomy, optics, mechanics, and mathematics, many of his innovations in methodology, optics and timekeeping remain in use to this day. Among his many achievements, he developed the theory of light travelling as a wave, invented the mechanism for the pendulum clock, and discovered the rings of Saturn – via a telescope that he had also invented.
A man of fashion and culture, Christiaan came from a family of multi-talented individuals whose circle included not only leading figures of Dutch society, but also artists and philosophers such as Rembrandt, Locke and Descartes. The Huygens family and their contemporaries would become key actors in the Dutch Golden Age, a time of unprecedented intellectual expansion within the Netherlands. Set against a backdrop of worldwide religious and political turmoil, this febrile period was defined by danger, luxury and leisure, but also curiosity, purpose, and tremendous possibility.
Following in Huygens’s footsteps as he navigates this era while shuttling opportunistically between countries and scientific disciplines, Hugh Aldersey-Williams builds a compelling case to reclaim Huygens from the margins of history and acknowledge him as one of our most important and influential scientific figures.
Summary importance Christiaan Huygens: telescopes, discovered rings of Saturn and its moon Titan, (bi)refringence and polarization of light, correct interpretation of light as a wave phenomenon, wave interference (both sound and light), accurate pendulum clocks, contributions in mathematical curves like cycloids, breakthroughs in mechanics like centripetal forces, impulse and elastic collisions, conservation of kinetic energy in mathematical equations, significant early contributions to the mathematics of probability, early concept of relativity of movement, organizer of European science as de facto founder of the French Academie des Sciences in Paris and first foreign member of the Royal Society in London. Huygens was the first to apply mathematical formulas to phenomena in physics and as such can be seen as the first theoretical physicist. Huygens was not a loner, like Newton and many others, but a European integrator of science, much like that other Dutchman Hendrik Lorentz would be around 1900. The Dutch background in both cases, meaning coming from a small country, located at the center of gravity of the three surrounding large European countries Britain, France and Germany, predisposes the Dutch as natural mediators. Huygens helped creating a civilized European scientific culture, where cooperation mattered, not nationality, paving the way for he Enlightenment. Furthermore, late in his life he wrote one of the first works of science fiction, as he speculated on life on other planets. He was the first to work on a combustion engine, used to drive the king’s fountains, fueled by gunpowder, an enterprise he (in cooperation with Leibniz and Papin) fortunately abandoned just in time as too dangerous. Huygens even anticipated the possibility of airplanes. Huygens had great illustrative skills, which enabled him to adequately express scientific ideas.
The Brit Hugh Aldersey-Williams does an admirable job in giving Huygens the place he deserves, next to other European giants like Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and of course Newton. His book breathes the love of science in the spirit of civilized international cooperation. It is unlikely that Aldersey-Williams is a Brexiteer. People like him make us confident that some day, after Johnson and Farage, Britain (England?) in some form will return to the European dinner table. Thank you for a few days of sublime reading pleasure!
Christiaan Huygens by Caspar Netscher, 1671
[wikipedia.org] – Christiaan Huygens
[gallica.bnf.fr] – Christiaan Huygens Œuvres
[dbnl.org] – Christiaan Huygens
[delpher.nl] – Œuvres complètes de Christiaan Huygens
[trouw.nl] – Auteur Hugh Aldersey-Williams wil een herwaardering van deze Nederlandse wetenschapper: ‘Hij was beter dan Newton’
[ed.nl] – Haagse wiskundige is te lang onderschat: ‘Christiaan Huygens was groter dan Newton’
[nieuwarchief.nl] – Stevin, Huygens and the Dutch republic
[literaryreview.co.uk] – Through the Magnifying Glass (book review)
[npofocus.nl] – Was Christiaan Huygens de grootste uitvinder van de Gouden Eeuw? (contains many Dutch-language videos, not available on Youtube)