Christiaan Huygens

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Christiaan Huygens, painted by Caspar Netscher in 1671

Christiaan Huygens [ ˈhœi̯ɣəns ] ( pronunciation ? / I ) (born April 14, 1629 in The Hague ; † July 8, 1695 ibid), also Christianus Hugenius , was a Dutch astronomer , mathematician and physicist . Huygens is considered one of the leading mathematicians and physicists of the 17th century , although he never made use of the infinitesimal calculus , which was developed during his lifetime . He is the founder of the wave theory of light , formulated a principle of relativity in his investigations into elastic impact and constructed the first pendulum clocks . With telescopes improved by him, he made important astronomical discoveries. Audio file / audio sample


Origin and education

Huygens was born the son of Constantijn Huygens , who was a linguist, diplomat, composer and Holland's leading poet at the time. Through his father, Christiaan came into contact with important personalities at an early age, including Rembrandt , Peter Paul Rubens and René Descartes . Christiaan was tutored by his father as a child. He later studied law at the University of Leiden , but soon switched to mathematics and natural sciences.

His first published work (1651) dealt with the squaring of cones and showed an error in an alleged proof of the squaring of the circle . He also dealt with the circle number π (pi), logarithms and did important preparatory work for the infinitesimal calculus , on which Leibniz and Newton could then build. In 1657 he published the first treatise on the theory of the game of dice ( De ludo aleae ), which makes him one of the founders of probability today. This was preceded by correspondence between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat , about the contents of which Huygens claimed, however, nothing was known. If one analyzes the solutions to the five problems listed at the end of his treatise, one must assume that he knew Pascal's ideas, but not the combinatorial paths of Fermat.

Turning to the natural sciences

Christiaan Huygens, portrait by Bernard Vaillant , exhibited at Museum Hofwijck

Huygens became increasingly interested in the then modern areas of natural sciences, optics and astronomy with telescopes . He was in contact with Antoni van Leeuwenhoek , then the leading lens grinder and microscope designer . For a short time, Huygens also examined small objects under the microscope. But he soon began to grind lenses for telescopes himself and, together with his brother Constantijn Huygens Junior, constructed his first telescope. Huygens developed wave theory of light , which enabled him, lenses with lower aberrations to grind (aberration) and to build the better the telescopes; his discoveries also increased the sharpness of the camera obscura and laterna magica . He was the first to formulate the Huygens principle named after him , which is considered the basis of wave optics . Like many other physicists of his time, Huygens also developed his own theory of an ether for light and gravity.

Huygens first discovered Saturn's moon Titan in 1655 with his self-made telescope . This made Saturn the second planet after Jupiter (apart from the earth), where a moon could be detected ( Galileo Galilei had already discovered the four largest Jupiter moons in 1610 ). Also, through the better resolution of his telescope, he could see that what Galileo called the ears of Saturn were actually Saturn's rings.

He also found out that these rings had no connection to the planet and that their mysterious disappearance every 14 years was due to the fact that they were then seen from the side, but were too thin to be seen from Earth .

Further astronomical achievements of Huygens were the discovery of the rotational movement of Mars and the calculation of the rotation period (Martian day) with approximately 24 hours as well as the resolution of the trapezoid in the center of the Orion Nebula into four individual stars. In his honor, the brightest region of the Orion Nebula is also called the Huygens region . He also discovered other nebulae and binary star systems and suggested that Venus was covered by a dense cloud cover.

Mechanics, pendulum clock and exoplanets

Horologium oscillatorium sive de motu pendularium , 1673

Besides astronomy, Huygens was also interested in mechanics. He formulated the laws of impact and dealt with the principle of inertia and centrifugal forces . He was able to use his studies of vibrations and pendulum movements to build pendulum clocks. Galileo had designed one, but not built it. Huygens, however, was able to apply for a patent for his watch. The watches built on his behalf by Salomon Coster had an accuracy of ten seconds per day, a precision that could only be surpassed a hundred years later. Later he also designed pocket watches with spiral springs and a balance wheel .

In 1673 Christiaan Huygens published in his treatise Horologium Oscillatorium a precise pendulum clock with a cycloid pendulum, in which he made use of the fact that the evolution of the cycloid is itself a cycloid. However, the advantage in accuracy is offset by the disadvantage of increased friction.

He also made the earliest known clock for determining the degree of longitude , which featured several revolutionary techniques and was only recognized as the originator some time ago.

In his last scientific treatise in 1690, Huygens formulated the idea that there could be many other suns and planets in the universe and was already speculating about extraterrestrial life .

The correct derivation of the laws of elastic shock also comes from Huygens , making use of a principle of relativity (see Galileo transformation ). He published his findings, dating back to the 1650s and correcting the incorrect treatment by René Descartes , in 1669 (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Journal des Savants) and in his posthumously published book De Motu Corporum of 1703.

Christiaan Huygens and Samuel Sorbière (1617-1670) were the first two foreign scientists who were accepted into the Royal Society in June 1663 . In 1666 Huygens became the first director of the French Academy of Sciences founded that year . Newton called him the most elegant mathematician of his time.

Acoustics (music)

Huygens discovered the relationships between the speed of sound, length, and pitch of a pipe. He dealt intensively with the mean-tone tuning and in 1691 calculated the division of the octave into 31 equal steps in order to correct the error of the Pythagorean comma in the musical system .


In the 1680s, Huygens' health deteriorated and he did not leave home often. In the last years of his life, the scientist dealt with music theory. In 1695 Christiaan Huygens died unmarried and childless in The Hague.


Individual fonts (selection)

Traité de la Lumière (1690)
  • De ratiociniis in ludo aleae , 1657 (on probability theory); Dutch translation by Frans van Schooten : Van reeckening in spelen van geluck .
  • De vis centrifuga , 1673; German: About centrifugal force , edited by Felix Hausdorff , 1903.
  • Horologium oscillatorium sive de motu pendularium , 1673 (on the pendulum clock; also in vol. 18 of the collected works ); German: The pendulum clock . Ostwald's classic, 1913.
  • Traité de la lumière , 1690 (treatise on reflection and refraction , wave theory of light); German: Treatise on light . W. Engelmann, Leipzig 1890 ( digitized version ).
  • Lettre touchant le cycle harmonique , Rotterdam 1691 (via his tone system).
Posthumous publications
  • Cosmotheoros , 1698 (with speculations about extraterrestrial life; the writing was completed in the year of death 1695); German: world observer, or reasonable guesswork, that the planets are no less decorated and inhabited than our earth. Zurich, 1767; another German translation by v. Wurzelbau was published in Leipzig in 1703 and 1743.
  • Opuscula posthuma , 1703 (with the first treatment of the elastic impact: De motu corporum ex percussione , 1656 [published in German by Felix Hausdorff, 1903] and the description of the construction of planetariums Descriptio automati planetarii ) German: Christian Huygens' Nachgelassene Abhandlungen: Über die Movement of the body by the shock; About centrifugal force , edited by Felix Hausdorff. W. Engelmann, Leipzig 1903 ( digitized version ).

French complete edition

Oeuvres complètes , 22 volumes. The Hague 1888 to 1950. Editors: D. Bierens de Haan, Johannes Bosscha, Diederik Johannes Korteweg , Albertus Antonie Nijland, JA Vollgraf.

  • Tome I: Correspondance 1638-1656 (1888).
  • Tome II: Correspondance 1657-1659 (1889).
  • Tome III: Correspondance 1660-1661 (1890).
  • Tome IV: Correspondance 1662-1663 (1891).
  • Tome V: Correspondance 1664-1665 (1893).
  • Tome VI: Correspondance 1666-1669 (1895).
  • Tome VII: Correspondance 1670-1675 (1897).
  • Tome VIII: Correspondance 1676-1684 (1899).
  • Tome IX: Correspondance 1685-1690 (1901).
  • Tome X: Correspondance 1691-1695 (1905).
  • Tome XI: Travaux mathématiques 1645-1651 (1908).
  • Tome XII: Travaux mathématiques pures 1652-1656 (1910).
  • Tome XIII, Fasc. I: Dioptrique 1653, 1666 (1916).
  • Tome XIII, Fasc. II: Dioptrique 1685-1692 (1916).
  • Tome XIV: Calcul des probabilités. Travaux de mathématiques pures 1655-1666 (1920).
  • Tome XV: Observations astronomiques. Système de Saturne. Travaux astronomiques 1658–1666 (1925).
  • Tome XVI: Mécanique jusqu'à 1666. Percussion. Question de l'existence et de la perceptibility du mouvement absolu. Force centrifuge (1929).
  • Tome XVII: L'horloge à pendule de 1651 à 1666. Travaux divers de physique, de mécanique et de technique de 1650 à 1666. Traité des couronnes et des parhélies (1662 ou 1663) (1932).
  • Tome XVIII: L'horloge à pendule ou à balancier de 1666 à 1695. Anecdota (1934).
  • Tome XIX: Mécanique théorique et physique de 1666 à 1695. Huygens à l'Académie royale des sciences (1937).
  • Tome XX: Musique et mathématique. Musique. Mathématiques de 1666 à 1695 (1940).
  • Tome XXI: Cosmology (1944).
  • Tome XXII: Supplément à la correspondance. Varia. Biography of Chr. Huygens. Catalog de la vente des livres de Chr. Huygens (1950).


  • Cornelis D. Andriesse: Huygens. The Man Behind the Principle . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge et al. 2005, ISBN 0-521-85090-8 (foreword Sally Miedema).
  • VI Arnold : Newton and Barrow, Huygens and Hooke. Pioneers in Mathematical Analysis and Catastrophe Theory from Evolvents to Quasicrystals. Birkhäuser, Basel et al. 1990, ISBN 3-7643-2383-3 .
  • Arthur Ernest Bell: Christian Huygens and the Development of Science in the 17th Century. Edward Arnold, London 1947.
  • Henk JM Bos : Christiaan Huygens. Charles Coulston Gillispie (Ed.): Dictionary of Scientific Biography , Volume 6: Jean Hachette - Joseph Hyrtl. Scribner, New York NY 1972, ISBN 0-684-10117-3 , pp. 597-613.
  • Henk JM Bos: Christiaan Huygens. In: Henk JM Bos (Ed.): Lectures in the History of Mathematics (= History of Mathematics. Vol. 7). American Mathematical Society et al., Providence RI 1993, ISBN 0-8218-9001-8 , pp. 59-81.
  • Johannes Bosscha : Christiaan Huygens. Speak on the 200th anniversary of the end of his life . W. Engelmann, Leipzig 1895.
  • Henri L. Brugmans: Le Séjour de Christian Huygens à Paris et ses relations avec les milieux scientifiques français, suivi de son Journal de voyage à Paris et à Londres. Droz, Paris 1935.
  • Eduard Jan Dijksterhuis : Christiaan Huygens. Bij de voltooiing van zijn oeuvres complètes (= Haarlemse voordrachten. Vol. 10). Attached to the Algemene Vergadering on 13 May 1950. Bohn, Haarlem, 1951.
  • Fokko Jan Dijksterhuis: Lenses and Waves. Christiaan Huygens and the Mathematical Science of Optics in the Seventeenth Century (= Archimedes. Vol. 9). Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht et al. 2004, ISBN 1-4020-2697-8 .
  • Christiaan Huygens: Horologium. Reprint of the edition Hagae Comitum 1658. Edited and translated into German by Karl-Ernst Becker. Self-published by the editor, Düsseldorf 1977.
  • Wolfgang Schreier (Ed.): Biographies of important physicists. A collection of biographies . 2nd Edition. People and knowledge, Berlin 1988, ISBN 3-06-022505-2 .
  • Jan Smit: Dirck Rembrantsz van Nierop, 1610–1682. Het leven en werk van een beroemd star-knowledgeable, master in de wiskonst en een uitmuntend onderwijzer voor schippers en stuurlieden. Smit, Winkel 1992.
  • Dirk J. Struik : The land of Stevin and Huygens. A Sketch of Science and Technology in the Dutch Republic during the Golden Century (= Studies in the History of modern Science. Vol. 7). Reidel, Dordrecht et al. 1981, ISBN 90-277-1236-0 .
  • Christiane Vilain: La mécanique de Christian Huygens. La relativité de mouvement au XVIIe siècle. Blanchard, Paris 1996, ISBN 2-85367-201-8 .
  • Joella G. Yoder: Unrolling time. Christiaan Huygens and the mathematization of nature. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge et al. 1988, ISBN 0-521-34140-X .
  • Joella G. Yoder: Christian Huygens, Book on the pendulum clock (1673). In: Ivor Grattan-Guinness (Ed.) Landmark Writings in Western Mathematics 1640–1940. Elsevier, Amsterdam et al. 2005, ISBN 0-444-50871-6 , pp. 33-45.

See also

Individual evidence

  1. Christianus Hugenius: De Ratiociniis in Aleae Ludo . In: Franciscus à Schooten (ed.): Exercitationvm Mathematicarum: Libri Quinque. / Johannes Elsevirius (typographer). Vol. 5: Exercitationvm Mathematicarum, Liber V. Continens Sectiones Triginta Miscellaneas . Academia Lugduno-Batava, Lugdunum Batavorum 1657. - Translation from Dutch; a few years later the original appeared in Dutch. - Academia Lugduno-Batava is the University of Leiden. - Lugdunum Batavorum is suffering.
  2. F. Barth / R. Haller: The first solutions to the five problems of Christiaan Huygens, retold in modern language. Mathematikunterricht, issue 3/2008, pp. 19–42.
  3. Kenneth F. Schaffner: Nineteenth-century aether theories . Pergamon Press, Oxford 1972, p. 8-11 .
  4. Fatio de Duillier, N .: Lettre № 2570 . In: Société Hollandaise des Sciences (ed.): Oeuvres complètes de Christiaan Huygens . tape 9 . The Hague 1690, p. 381-389 ( digitized version ).
  5. Recently discovered: Huygens' longitude clock with perfect balance "BMP2". (PDF; 3700 kB), accessed on July 29, 2014 .
  6. ^ The music in the past and present 1986 vol. 6 «Huygens (family)».
  7. ^ NetherlandsNet (University of Münster): Christiaan Huygens .

Web links

Commons : Christiaan Huygens  - Album with pictures, videos and audio files