The Dutch Galileo? The greatness of Huygens' science

Stephane Van Damme
C.D Andriesse, Huygens. The man behind the principle, translated by Sally Miedema. Cambridge University Press, 2005. pp. xxvi+360, £55 (hardback). 0-521-85090-8.

Towards the end of his life, Huygens paid tribute to Galileo in terms that describe the paradigmatic characteristics of a good scientist:Galileo had the acuteness of mind and knew all the mathematics necessary to proceed in science. One has to admit that he made beautiful discoveries about the nature of motion, although he left many aspects untouched. He was not so reckless and arrogant as to explain all natural causes nor was he so vain that he wished to be the leader of a sect. He was modest and truthful. Yet he thought he had acquired eternal fame with his discoveries.

The Dutch physicist C. D. Andriesse opens his biography of the great scholar Christian Huygens (1629–95) with this quotation. His study is to be welcomed for several reasons, not least because it is one of the first biographies aimed at a general readership of a central figure of the late-seventeenth-century intellectual world. It also merits attention for its exhaustive bibliography, which systematically enumerates historical work on Huygens from the past 30 years. Regrettably, this bibliography is not subjected to much commentary or used in any detail throughout the text, but by including studies in five languages it will constitute an important tool for students and researchers. Andriesse has tried to resituate the originality of Huygens' work as a mathematician and physicist by analysing the scientific discoveries on which his international reputation in the seventeenth century rested, including his work in astronomy (his discovery of the rings of Saturn) and the invention of the pendulum clock. The lively narrative quotes extensively from Huygens' own correspondence, allowing the voice of one of the most important members of the Academy of Sciences, and its first president, to be heard directly.

The biographer's approach depends almost exclusively on a thorough study of Huygens' complete works. This source could perhaps have been explained in more detail, because it depends on a rather idiosyncratic organization of the material, which allows Huygens' life to be brought into line with the lives of such other great thinkers of the seventeenth century as Descartes, Newton and Leibniz. The chapter on commemoration might then have included an analysis of this cultural and social construction of national greatness. By basing the narrative on this one source, the author has deliberately given a greater emphasis to Huygens' self-fashioning, minimizing his inclusion in the network of international exchanges. His position in the Paris Academy of Science, his travel narrative and the controversies that mobilized scholars from all over Europe (including Honor Fabri, Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke) deserved more than anecdotal mention or simple summary (in this respect, chapter 11 on crisis is symptomatic of the absence of a critical treatment of the sources). Similarly, the issue of the (non-) publication, or rather the deferred publication, of his work is crucial to an understanding of Huygens' role in establishing his scientific legitimacy and authority in the new Paris academy. Huygens' experience is actually rather different from that of other great thinkers of the seventeenth century—something Andriesse brings over effectively, especially when he concentrates on his subject's melancholic disposition, his relationship with his father and his aristocratic ethos (given full expression in letters to Nicolaas Hartsoeker and Gilles de Roberval). However, the lack of recognition accorded to Huygens, and the relative obscurity into which his work has fallen, should not suddenly give way to a futile exercise in scientific rehabilitation; instead we should attempt to grasp the meaning of his experiments and innovations within the late-seventeenth-century context. Andriesse's attention to Huygens' family environment demonstrates the importance of the family circle, not just in terms of his scientific training but also as an audience for his early work. Far from being of peripheral concern, or supporting the psychoanalytical approach suggested by the author, this aspect of Huygens' life tallies with similar observations about Descartes and his circle. These reservations aside, the publication of this biography in English can only be applauded, and it is to be hoped that it will stimulate British research into Huygens' work as a natural philosopher.