Wake up to a long-dormant Dutch titan

January 13, 2006

The Dutch mathematician, physicist and astronomer Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) has been neglected by historians like no other truly great scientist. A measure of this neglect is the fact that this biography by Cees Andriesse is the first to be published in English, a translation of the Dutch original Titan kan niet slapen (Titan cannot sleep) that appeared more than ten years ago. In the Netherlands, Christiaan's fame is outshone by that of his father, Constantijn Huygens, the poet and diplomat whom the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes as the "most versatile and the last of the true Dutch renaissance virtuosos". Abroad, Huygens suffers from his name being unpronounceable for anyone not raised on guttural sounds, and from the failure of foreign scholars to bother with Dutch manuscripts.

Huygens made headlines last year when the space probe bearing his name landed on Titan on January 14, 2005. This moon, the largest of Saturn's satellites, was discovered by Huygens in 1655 using a telescope of his own design. "Titan" is also the title of honour by which Andriesse refers to Huygens throughout the book.

"Titan cannot sleep" alludes to the melancholia and insomnia that plagued Huygens during the latter part of his life. While this illness is well documented, Andriesse's Freudian analysis left this reviewer, at least, unconvinced. There is much speculation about unrequited love and the women in the life of Huygens, who never married, but scant evidence apart from some cryptic poems. On the whole, however, it pays off that the author allows his imagination a little licence. Considering that he is a professional engineer, his style is surprisingly engaging and poetic.

The editors at Cambridge University Press must have regarded the original title as too poetic for their taste and opted for the more sober "The Man Behind the Principle". The principle that bears Huygens's name explains the propagation of light in terms of elementary waves emanating from each point of a wave front. Motivated by a mechanistic view of all physical phenomena, it is in essence a purely geometric principle.

It may be argued that it was his adherence to a mechanistic world-view that prev-ented Huygens from discover-ing the law of gravitation before Newton.

Many of Newton's ideas are foreshadowed in Huygens's treatise on centrifu-gal force, written before Newton's Principia but published only posthumously. Einstein acknowledges his debt to Huygens in realising the consequences of the relativity of motion.

The French mathematician Marin Mersenne was so impressed by Huygens's early mathematical accomplishments that he wrote to Huygens senior about the then 17-year-old boy: "If he carries on like this, he will surpass Archimedes himself." Huygens soon earned his reputation across Europe. In 1666 he was appointed the first scientific director of the Academie Royale des Sciences in Paris. When Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz reported the news of Huygens's death to the Swiss mathematician Johann Bernoulli, he wrote of the "incomparable Huygens".

Today Huygens is mostly remembered for his achievements in the applied sciences. Outstanding among these is his work on the pendulum clock.

Accurate clocks are essential for determining longitude at sea, and thus of vital importance for a seafaring nation such as the Dutch. Several of the theoretical and practical problems in building a reliable sea chronometer were solved by Huygens.

In spite of the author's scientific background, this biography is aimed primarily at the general reader. The extensive bibliography that has been added to the English translation makes this book an excellent starting point for a deeper exploration of the life and work of Huygens. There is a name index, but the professional reader will miss a subject index.

There is not enough mathematics in Andriesse's text to dispel the notion that Huygens was a mathematician of talent rather than genius, who failed to grasp the power of the new analytic methods invented by Leibniz and Newton. Andriesse's mathematical terminology is not always accurate and has been mangled further in the translation. Also he might have made a stronger case for the surprising modernity of Huygens's mathematical ideas.

Andriesse's beautiful allusive style may occasionally be lost on readers of this translation. For instance, an account of a supposed stroll by Huygens and his teacher Frans van Schooten along the Rapenburg in Leiden will fail to evoke the desired images if one does not know that this street is not only the location of the old university but arguably the most beautiful canal in the Netherlands.

These are minor quibbles about what is otherwise a magnificent biography, full of music, poetry, letters to friends and ministers, and much else from the riches of 17th-century culture and politics.

Hansjorg Geiges is professor of mathematics, University of Cologne, Germany.

Huygens: The Man behind the Principle

Author - Cees D. Andriesse
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 440
Price - £55.00
ISBN - 0 521 85090 8

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