Patricia Fara

Through the Magnifying Glass

Dutch Light: Christiaan Huygens and the Making of Science in Europe


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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 addition to Christiaan, there were four Constantijns, one Christiaen and a Constantia, several of whom were also engaged in scientific and artistic projects. Throughout his career, Christiaan Huygens benefited from the practical contributions, financial support and diplomatic contacts provided by his distinguished family, whose friends included Descartes and Rembrandt. Aldersey-Williams carefully distinguishes between them all, devoting a substantial proportion of his book to the oldest Constantijn, Christiaan’s father, who exerted such an overwhelming influence on him that when he died, Christiaan – then fifty-eight years old – commissioned a portrait of himself dressed as an orphan.

As the title implies, Dutch Light roots its subject in his local environment, explaining, for example, how an abundance of sand for making glass led naturally to a thriving business in optical instruments in Holland. Aldersey-Williams begins his story around a quarter of a century before Huygens’s birth, when the practical mathematician Simon Stevin enticed Prince Maurits to step aboard his wheeled yacht and experience the thrill of racing along the beach at Scheveningen. Huygens, maintains Aldersey-Williams, consolidated this early Dutch progress in the sciences, successfully attracting patronage by combining practical skills with mathematical ability so that he could range freely beyond the world of academia. As a second major strand, the author also emphasises that Huygens’s energetic travelling, letter-writing and string-pulling enabled his reputation to shine out across national borders.

‘The world is my country, science my religion’: whether or not Huygens actually uttered this declaration attributed to him, it concisely sums up how he coupled his devotion to research with his bid to operate internationally, despite the religious turmoil and political warfare disrupting Europe’s Republic of Letters. Originally writing in Latin to reach wide audiences, he later switched to French and lived in Paris for almost twenty years. Whereas Newton never ventured overseas, Huygens visited London several times, even restoring a civil level of conversation with his English antagonist, who was notorious for nurturing bitter enmities. Aldersey-Williams rightly stresses how crucial such networks of communication were in the development of scientific ideas, although he slightly overstates the significance and distinctiveness of Huygens’s role in this.

Boasting a lavish selection of colour plates as well as black-and-white drawings, Dutch Light is a delightful book to contemplate and to read. Elegantly written and impeccably referenced, it benefits from Aldersey-Williams’s willingness to learn Dutch and carry out extensive research not only in diverse libraries and manuscript archives but also in art galleries and poetry collections. A few slips (Gresham College did not become the Royal Society; Newton had more than ‘little training’ in Greek geometry) need not detract from the exemplary breadth of his approach, which is fundamentally important, because – as was the case with Newton and his other scholarly contemporaries – Huygens’s interests ranged over a wide spectrum that was not restricted to topics nowadays deemed scientific.

The potential rewards of studying pictures is exemplified by Aldersey-Williams’s discussion of Rembrandt’s The Spectacles Seller, a tiny canvas that belongs to a set of allegories of the five senses and carries a moral message about the evils of deception. Here it acts as a perfect illustration of how central optical science, skilled craftsmanship and trade all were to Dutch society and also how inseparably intertwined they were with each other. Similarly, a section on statistics opens with the celebrated painting of three dice players by David Teniers II. Known in English as The Gamblers, it offers Aldersey-Williams an opportunity to discuss conflicting religious attitudes towards betting as well as providing a basis for explaining Huygens’s research into probability theory, which was of great contemporary relevance for calculating insurance risks in a flourishing market economy.

Since his approach is so wonderfully multidisciplinary, it seems somewhat unfortunate that Aldersey-Williams should undermine his own project by labelling Huygens a scientist. One of the great strengths of this book is to demonstrate the contrary – that Huygens was very different from a modern scientist, but did help to establish a world in which such a category existed. As is revealed in a brief footnote, the word ‘scientist’ would not be invented for almost two hundred years; in fact, it was not in widespread use until the early 20th century. This anachronism is rather like describing an ancient Roman or Chinese trader totting up sums on his abacus as an investment banker. Even Newton wrote more about alchemy, God and ancient chronology than about gravity and optics.

Analysing the past is endlessly fascinating because there are always new facts to uncover and new interpretations to put forward. In this book, Hugh Aldersey-Williams presents a fresh and absorbing vision of 17th-century experimentation that sheds welcome light on wider European culture.

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