Hugh Aldersey-Williams meets Fabian Kraemer

Christiaan Huygens and the culture of ‘popular’ science

9 January 2019

Far from a modern concept, translating scientific discoveries and narratives to a broad audience has long been a passion of many great explorers and researchers. In the seventeenth century, Christiaan Huygens made spreading the discoveries of the budding Enlightenment his life’s work, before the rise of the lauded Isaac Newton. How can we take histories such as Huygens’ out of the ivory tower? Writer in residence Hugh Aldersey-Williams will discuss this with Fabian Kraemer.

Christiaan Huygens was Europe’s greatest scientist of the third quarter of the seventeenth century, at the height of the Dutch Golden Age. Astronomer, physicist, mathematician and inventor, he discovered the ring(s) of Saturn, invented the pendulum clock, and devised a wave theory of light. Yet his achievements have been almost entirely eclipsed in the anglophone world by his perceived successor, Isaac Newton.

In many ways, however, Huygens was the better scientist, more rigorous in his methods, more judicious in his choice of proper topics for enquiry, always on the lookout for practical applications of his work, and more engaged with his peers – qualities acknowledged as essential in modern science.

He was also a major figure in the internationalization of science, a Dutchman who shaped the French Academy of Sciences, and the first foreign member of the Royal Society of London – this despite frequent wars between the Netherlands, France and England at the time. He spent some of the most productive years of his career in Paris, so how important were his Dutch roots to the kind of science he pursued and the way he pursued it?

And how can his story be retold for readers who may never have heard of him? In this event, best-selling author Hugh Aldersey-Williams discusses Huygens as a scientist – perhaps even a popular one – and the translation of science to a broad audience. His fellow historian and writer Fabian Kraemer acts as a discussant, providing questions and provocations to potential popularisations of Huygens, and history.

More information

  • British author, journalist and scientist Hugh Aldersey-Williams will be living and working as a writer-in-residence in Amsterdam from 2 December 2018 to 15 January 2019, upon invitation by the Dutch Foundation for Literature.
  • Register for the event (free)