The famous philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861 – 1947) described the seventeenth century as the “age of genius” with scientists such as Kepler, Galileo, Newton, de Moivre, Napier, Fermat and Bayer. Christiaan Huygens was also one of the leading genius scientists of his time.
Christiaan Huygens worked extensively as a mathematician, astronomer, physicist and horologist. In particular, he made important contributions to light wave theory and probability theory. Among his important works are the discovery of the true structure of Saturn and its moon Titan, the invention of the pendulum clock, and other research on the workings of time.
Born on April 14, 1629 in the Netherlands, Huygens’ father Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687) was a diplomat and poet and belonged to a distinguished family. Huygens had a talent for mechanical drawing and mathematics that was evident even at an early age. His early efforts in geometry influenced Descartes (French Mathematician and Philosopher, 1596-1650), a friend of his father. In 1645, Huygens entered the University of Leiden, where he studied mathematics and law. In 1655 he visited Paris for the first time.
While in Paris, he met Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), with whom he had previously corresponded on mathematical problems. In 1666, Huygens became one of the founding members of the French Academy of Sciences. The Academy granted him a higher pension than other members and an apartment in its building. Except for occasional visits to the Netherlands, he lived in Paris from 1666 to 1681. Here he met and befriended the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716).
Although he rejected some of Descartes’ philosophical views, he knew that his work on mechanics was very important in science. In his early work, he confirmed Descartes’ Cartesian principles of the identity of space and body. This verification had a significant impact on the mathematical interpretation of the theories of light and gravity developed by Huygens.
Huygens learned about the study of probability from the correspondence between Pascal and Fermat. On his return to the Netherlands he wrote a small book on the calculus of probabilities, De Ratiociniis in Ludo Aleae, his first printed work. In addition to this work, De Circuli Magnitudine Inventa, written in 1654, is particularly important in the field of mathematics.
In March 1655, he discovered Saturn’s moon Titan and distinguished the stellar components of the planet. Moreover, in 1659 he made a major scientific breakthrough with the discovery of the true shape of Saturn’s rings. He achieved this discovery with the telescope he developed using a new method of lens grinding and polishing. In 1656, he identified the Orion Nebula. As an astronomer, he had a great interest in the accurate measurement of time.