Christiaan Huygens


August 13, 2022

Christiaan Huygens (14 April 1629 – 8 July 1695) was a prominent Dutch mathematician, physicist and astronomer, inventor and author of early science fiction. He was one of the internationally leading figures of seventeenth-century science. In mathematics, Huygens was a pioneer of probability theory, and a pioneer of differential and integral calculus, although his methods remained strictly geometric. He contributed to physics in many fields. For example, in mechanics he formulated the correct laws for the elastic collision, in addition to the correct expressions for the centrifugal force, and the period of the mathematical pendulum. In optics, Huygens, in his Traité de la lumière (1690), was the first to explain light as a wave phenomenon, using Huygens-Fresnel's Principle that became the generally accepted optical theory from the nineteenth century. In the modern physics of the twentieth century, this wave theory became part of the more complex theoretical understanding of the wave-particle duality. Research into the birefringence of light in Icelandic crystal led Huygens to formulate a theory for polarized light. He further explained sound phenomena with interference. Because Huygens was the first to use mathematical formulas in physics, he is regarded as the first theoretical physicist. In astronomy, Huygens contributed by further developing the telescope, and by explaining the hitherto unexplained appearance of Saturn as a planet with rings. He discovered the moon Titan near this planet. As an inventor, Huygens has, among other things, the pendulum clock, the principle of the steam engine and a gunpowder engine to his name. Because of his speculations about extraterrestrial life, Huygens is seen as an early science fiction author.



Huygens was born in 1629 in The Hague on the Lange Houtstraat, into a prosperous and prominent family. His father, Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687), was a diplomat, top advisor to the Orange House, poet and composer. Christiaan was named after his grandfather, Constantine's father. His mother was Suzanna van Baerle (1599-1637), "Sterre" in the poems of father Constantijn. She was not related to Barlaeus, but through her father Jan Henrickzn van Baerle she was related to Susanna Hoefnagel, her mother-in-law. Christiaan later wrote about his mother that she had a great love for the natural sciences. There were five children, in order of birth Constantijn junior, Christiaan, Lodewijk, Philip and Susanna. When Huygens was eight years old, his mother died. Her role in the family was taken over by a niece. The children were taught by governors in many subjects: math, music, Latin, Ancient Greek, French, Italian and logic, as well as dancing and horse riding. Huygens excelled at everything and was conversing in Latin when he was nine. He played harpsichord, lute and viola da gamba. He also liked to work with his hands, and made his own lathe. Father Constantijn Huygens had his family portrayed several times. There are known painted portraits of Christiaan and mother Suzanna by Caspar Netscher. In 1639 Adriaen Hanneman painted Constantijn Huygens surrounded by his five children. Through his father, Huygens came into contact with prominent mathematicians, such as René Descartes, and with the scientific mediator Marin Mersenne. The latter influenced Huygens' education in the field of mathematics and compared him with Archimedes. In 1644 Huygens received mathematics lessons from Jan Stampioen, who drew up a study advice for him in 1645 (which has been preserved).


Huygens studied law and mathematics at Leiden University from 1645 to 1647, with the pedagogical mathematician Frans van Schooten, a supporter of Descartes, among others. Johan de Witt and Hendrik van Heuraet also studied mathematics with Van Schoot