Rienk Vermij

Christiaan Huygens

De mathematisering van de werkelijkheid

The mathematization of reality

As a mathematician and physicist of the second half of the seventeenth century, Christiaan Huygens is regarded as second only to Isaac Newton. He was a central figure in the transformation of physics in that period. He followed in the footsteps of pioneers like Galileo and Descartes in attempting to understand the world purely through mathematical study and carried out pioneering theoretical research in many fields, including mathematics, mechanics, optics and astronomy. He deduced the laws of collision and was active in the fields of probability and light theory. He discovered the rings of Saturn and established that it also had a moon.

But theory alone was not enough for Huygens. He was convinced that the world operated according to the laws of reason and therefore that mathematical understanding would inevitably lead to practical improvements. He experimented with lenses and developed better versions of ingenious devices including the telescope, the magic lantern, the air pump, the harpsichord and carriage suspension. He became famous for the invention of the pendulum clock, making reliable timekeeping possible for the first time.

Rienk Vermij’s biography is not simply an overview of Huygens’ discoveries, since it aims to demonstrate a relationship between his career and the culture in which he lived. The Dutch Republic led seventeenth-century Europe in painting (Rembrandt), philosophy (Spinoza) and in the investigation of natural phenomena. Huygens, the product of an aristocratic and erudite family, was financially independent and able to devote himself entirely to research, even though at the time there was no automatic assumption that work such as his would prove useful.

When the Académie Royale des Sciences was founded in Paris in 1666, Huygens became its first foreign member, which enabled him to play a major role on the European scientific stage for many years. He was a member of the Royal Society of London and corresponded with the most important scholars of his time, including Pascal, Newton and Leibniz. The latter was also a friend.

Huygens’ manuscripts and correspondence have already been published, but until now there has been no readily accessible account of his life. Vermij offers enjoyable insights into Huygens’ life and work while at the same time outlining the development of the natural sciences in early-modern Europe, throwing light on a lesser known but crucial chapter in the history of science.

  • Accessible biography of one of Europe’s first modern scholars
  • Explores a vital episode in the ‘scientific revolution’

Outstanding. The best overview yet of Christiaan Huygens’ life and work.

Floris Cohen in <em>Academische Boeken Gids</em>

Rienk Vermij

Rienk Vermij gained his doctorate from the Institute for the History of the Natural Sciences at the University of Utrecht and now works at the Department of the History of Science, University of Oklahoma (USA). He has a great many publications to his name on the subject of the history of science…

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Christiaan Huygens. De mathematisering van de werkelijkheid (2004). Non-fiction, 160 pages.
Words: 18,000
Copies sold: 3,000

With illustrations in colour and black-and-white, and references


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