During the 17th century, which brilliant mathematician at London’s Royal Society wrote about gravity, insisted that light is composed of waves, invented the first pendulum clock and discovered the rings of Saturn? The intuitive answer is Isaac Newton; the correct one is Christiaan Huygens (1629–95), his older Dutch rival who was acclaimed all over Europe, even by churlish Newton. Finding himself stumped by the complexities of Newtonian gravitation, the philosopher John Locke turned to the most reliable source of advice, Huygens, who reassured him that the calculations were all correct but agreed that the fundamental idea of attraction across empty space must be wrong. He was also a talented artist, musician and poet. Dubbed ‘Holland’s Orpheus’, Huygens composed over eight hundred pieces, using music ‘to fiddle myself out of bad humour’ and appreciating concerts as a chance to flirt with attractive women. In contrast, although the misogynistic Newton did once visit the opera house, he walked out after the second act, while his extensive library included multiple copies of the Bible but none of Paradise Lost or other great works of English literature.
In his vibrant new biography of Huygens, Dutch Light, Hugh Aldersey-Williams rescues his subject from Newton’s shadow, where he has been unjustly confined for over three hundred years. I suspect that I am not the only person who has previously conflated this particular Huygens with some of his relatives: in