Christiaan Huygens. April 14, 1629 – July 8, 1695. A Dutch mechanic, physicist, mathematician, astronomer and inventor, one of the founders of the Theory of Mechanics and the Theory of Probability. First foreign member of Royal Society of London, first president of the French Academy of Sciences.


Life and Work:

1. It is only fair that the European space probe designed to fly to Titan was named Huygens as it was the Dutch astronomer, mechanic and mathematician Huygens who discovered that celestial body. The man himself could be called a Titan as his role in the development of science was immense.


2. His biographer wrote that “talents, nobility and wealth were obviously inherent in the family of Christiaan Huygens.” His father was a privy counsellor to the princes of Orange and, moreover, a poet. Constantijn Huygens was a friend of Descartes and was keen on mathematics himself. Cartesian philosophy, i.e., the one coming from Descartes, had a great impact on Christiaan Huygens, too.


3. Home teachers taught Huygens mathematics, geography, history, logic, rhetoric, and languages – the boy had mastered Latin by the time he was 9 years old. The future scientist played the harpsichord, the lute, and the viola da gamba.


4. Christiaan loved manual work, and he designed a turning lathe himself. The teacher marveled at his invention: “I admit that Christiaan must be considered a prodigy boy. He develops his abilities in the field of mechanics and construction, he designs amazing machines, yet they would hardly be useful.” AS it turned out later, the mentor was wrong. The machines and devices Huygens developed were very useful to the humankind.


5. Young Huygens studied law and mathematics at the University of Leiden and at famous Collegium Auriacum at Breda, however, with time law was rejected in favor of sciences. At the age of 22 Huygens published Theoremata de Quadrature. Several years later the young mathematician developed the general theory of evolutes and evolvents and investigated cycloids and a cetenary line.


6. Huygens is considered to be the father of the Theory of Probability as his work “On Reasoning in Game of Chance” devoted to this field of mathematics was published 22 years earlier than the correspondence between Pascal and Fermat.


7. To discover Saturn’s first satellite that was later called Titan, Huygens had to perfect the telescope. Therefore, the scientist spent several years grinding lenses. Huygens did not name the newly discovered celestial body. Instead, he simply called it Saturn’s Moon.


8. When Galileo first observed Saturn through the telescope, he noted that it did not look like a single celestial body, but rather as three bodies almost touching each other. He put forward a proposal that these were two large “companions,” i.e., satellites of Saturn. Huygens used a more powerful telescope to find out that those companions were thin and flat circles surrounding the planet without touching it. “It is surrounded by a thin, flat ring that is nowhere adjacent to the planet and that is turned ecliptically,” this was Huygen’s description of the ring around Saturn.


9. Other Huygen’s achievements in astronomy include discovering the ice cap on the South Pole of Mars, a detailed description of the Orion nebula and other nebulae, observing binary stars, and other numerous minor discoveries.


10. The scientist went further than his predecessors and contemporaries in attempting to create a reliable and cheap pendulum clock mechanism as this device was necessary for both scientific measurements and the general public. The clock designed by Huygens was precise and quickly gained popularity worldwide.


11. In a letter to Louis XIV, the French king, Huygens wrote about his clock: “My mechanism installed in your apartment will not only surprise you every day with precise indication of time, but, as I hoped from the very beginning, it will be appropriate to determine longitude at sea.” He was not entirely right as a reliable marine chronometer would be invented only 80 years later.


12. Huygens put a lot of effort into perfecting the clock. He presented the theoretical basis of his invention in the classical work called “Horologium oscillatorium, sive de motu pendulorum an horologia aptato demonstrationes geometrica” or “Horologium” where, apart from the theory of designing the clock, he also set out the basics of the theory of mechanics. In 1675, Huygens patented a pocket watch.


13. It is not by chance that we have mentioned Louis XIV. When the French began considering the foundation of the Academy of Sciences, Huygens was invited to become its first president. He was provided with a huge salary of 6,000 livres annually. The observatory and the laboratory for the scientist’s experiments were also equipped with the money provided by the French king. Huygens headed the Academy for 15 years and he returned to the Netherlands only because he did not want to be converted to Catholicism.


14. Huygens was one of the pioneers of the propeller idea. It only seems logical nowadays that a resident of the country full of windmills suggested using an airscrew propeller with blades in aerial vehicles.


15. Huygens was keen on optics, so he took an active part in the contemporary disputes on the nature of light. In 1678 he published “Treatise on Light” where he set forth the main principles of the wave theory of light. Isaak Newton, who Huygens met later in Britain and who he made a great impact on, published his “Optics” containing the alternative corpuscular theory in 1704.


16. Huygens’ work Cosmotheoros published in 1698 is considered to be one of the first science-fiction works. The scientist provided a detailed consideration of the possibility of life on other planets. According to Huygens, there had been life on other planets similar to that on Earth, but it was impossible to live on the Sun.


17. As many other 17th century scientists, e.g., Descartes, Spinosa, Pascal, and Newton, Huygens never got married and, to our knowledge, had no children. Thus, if you come across a story of Huygens burning his wife’s diamonds while researching crystal polymorphism, consider it a fake. Even if he had burned someone’s diamonds, these had not been his wife’s.