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CHRISTIAAN HUYGENS (1629 - 1695)

Christiaan Huygens was born in The Hague, Holland in 1629, into a wealthy and influential family. His mother died giving birth to his sister in 1637, so Christiaan was mostly influenced by his father in his early youth. His father, Constanin Huygens was a diplomat, working for the House of Orange. He was also a poet, composer and accomplished musician who had a degree in natural philosophy. Christiaan Huygens was educated at home until he was sixteen. His father called him his “little Archimedes”, which was a reasonable nick-name since the young Christiaan Huygens showed an innate ability for mathematics, spoke English and French fluently and was an accomplished musician.

The Huygens’ home was a calling place for many important personages of the time. John Donne, Marin Mersenne, Rembrandt van Rijn and Rene Descartes were among the famous people who were visitors to the Huygens’ household. Descartes particularly took an interest in the young Huygens’ education. He was impressed by the young man’s ability in mathematics, particularly geometry. Christiaan Huygens, in turn, became interested in a wide variety of subjects as he listened to the conversations around the dinner table.

In 1637 Huygens attended Leiden University reading law and mathematics. After two years he continued his education at the Collegium Auriacum in Breda, where he studied optics and mechanics as well as law and mathematics. On leaving Breda, Huygens joined a 1649 diplomatic envoy that visited Demark, Rome and other parts of Europe.

Christiaan Huygens

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By 1654 Huygens was back in The Hague. He had become fascinated with a new invention, the telescope. Huygens set about making his own telescope and, with the help of Braruch Spinoza and Huygen’s brother, Constantijn, he found better ways of grinding and polishing the lenses. He built some of the largest telescopes being used at that time; up to 250 feet in focal length. Using his telescope, Huygens discovered the Orion Nebula, the largest of Saturn’s moons, Titan and observed the true shape of Saturn’s rings. He also discovered that Jupiter bulges at its equator and he made drawings of the polar cap of Mars. Huygens observations of Mars showed him a surface feature, now called Syrtis Major. He was able to use the information from his observations and measurements to calculate the size of the Red Planet and find the length of the Martian day.

Huygens published his findings about Saturn’s rings in 1659, in the book Systema Saturnium. His observations were not accepted by other astronomers, but it soon became clear that Huygens had been using a much more powerful telescope than his contempories. In 1660 he visited Paris where he attended meetings that brought together the French scientists of the day. 1661 saw him in London where he showed off his telescope, even to royalty. Huygens was elected to the newly-formed Royal Society in 1663. He left England when he was invited by Louis XIV of France to come to Paris and join the Academie Royale des Sciences. Huygens helped to construct the Academie Royale des Sciences, based on his knowledge of how the Royal Society in England was set up. The king paid him a retainer and Huygens took up residence in a large apartment in the Royal Library.

In 1681 Huygens returned to The Hague. He was in ill health and France had become difficult for him since 1672 when war had been declared between his adopted country and the Netherlands. When his friend and protector Colbert died, Huygens thought it best to move back to The Hague. He made a brief trip to London in 1689 and met Newton and Boyle. There are different accounts about the relationship between Christiaan Huygens and Isaac Newton. Some sources indicate that they got on well together and respected each other's work. Other sources make claim that Huygens thought too much of himself and was too critical of Newton’s work.

In 1690 Huygens wrote an amazing piece of work called Cosmotheoros that was published in 1698, three years after his death. This book was the first to suggest the existence of life on other planets. Huygens argument was simple enough; if there are so many stars in the heavens, then it must be assumed that there are countless numbers of planets. If this is the case, then there must be many other Earths.

During his lifetime Huygens had many other scientific firsts to his credit. He invented the pendulum clock, made important contributions to the physics of light and optics, and his work on centrifugal forces was influential in Newton’s Laws of Gravitation. It is sad to think that his death, in 1695 was the result of a severe depression. Christiaan Huygens is remembered by naming the lunar mountain range, Mons Huygens, after him. There is also Huygens Crater on Mars, Asteroid Huygens and NASA’s Cassini-Huygens probe that made its sixth fly-past of Titan on 22 August 2005. It is due to reach Dione, another of Saturn’s moons, on 11th October 2005

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