We might rise from this limited Earth and,
looking from above, thinking, whether nature all its
splendour and glory had wasted to this heaply of dirt.
So we will, like traveller in other far away lands,
get a better judgement about the things at home and
form judgement of any thing by its worthiness.
What the world calls great we will admire less and
all the nullities most of the people set their heart on
we despise noble, because we will know, that myriads of
settled and equally good fitted worlds like ours exist.
(Christiaan Huygens in "The Discovery of Celestial Worlds", ca. 1690,
cited from Carl Sagan: "Unser Kosmos", Droemer-Knaur 1982, retranslated)

Christiaan Huygens

The World is my Fatherland, Science is my Religion


Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695), Scientist

At April the 14th 1629 Christiaan Huygens was born in Den Haag. His Father was Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687), a Dutch statesman, diplomat, and artist. At his home famous poets, painter, and philosopher of his time were guests, besides others Rubens, Rembrandt, and Descartes. Raised in this worldly-open family with many childrens Christiaan Huygens studied like Pierre de Fermat (1601-1665) jurisprudence first, then mathematics and natural sciences.

He was in relationship with Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), who was known as the best microscope builder of his time and who not only grinded his lenses out of glass, but also out of rock crystal and diamond. Huygens was involved at the examination of small life forms and microscopic objects like sperms and blood cells. He grinded his own lenses for astronomical telescopes. His biggest refractor had a length of five meter. With his theory of the wave form of light he was able to calculate the refraction within the lenses and was able to make refractors with lesser chromatic and spherical aberration. He also invented a type of ocular/eyepiece named according to him, where the image pojected by the objective is placed between two different ocular lenses on a visual plate, consisting of two planoconvex lenses.

Titan in StarryNight

Titan in StarryNight

With his advanced telescopes Huygens discovered 1655 the Saturnian moon Titan, which was thought to be the biggest moon within the solar system for a long time. Today its known that the real diameter of Titan with ca. 5200 kilometer is somewhat smaller than the diameter of the Jovian moon Ganymede with ca. 5400 kilometer. After the discovery of the Galileian moons around Jupiter Titan was the second discovery of satellites around a planet. It has a dense atmosphere of methane and ammonia, which is responsible for an apparently larger size and for the reddish color.

Saturn ring positions

Graphic from "Systema Saturnium" by Christiaan Huygens, 1659

At that same time Huygens was examining the Saturnian rings, which were an open phenomenon out of the time of the discovery by Galilei. Huygens presented the correct explanation for the rings in 1656. They are angled by 27 degrees to the Saturnian orbit, and therefore from Earth they are seen half a Saturnian year with their North side and half a Saturnian year with their South side, while the additional angle of the Saturnian orbit to the ecliptic makes some complex transitions possible. At the time around a transition the rings seem to dissapear, because in correlation to their huge diameter of ca. 280,000 kilometer (without G- and E-ring) they are extremely thin: the thickness of the rings varies from ten to fourhundred meter.

The rings are no solid objects. This fact is a deduction of the Keplerian laws. To be stable for decades and centuries the rings had to rotate and therefore stationary gas or liquids are not the material of them. At the outer edge the rotation speed of the rings are 16 and at the inner edge 21 kilometer per second(!). A solid object would chatter because of the speed differences, calculatable with the Keplerian laws. Huygens also discovered that the rings have no connections to the Saturnian body. He recorded his observations about Saturn in 1659 in his work "Systema Saturnium".

1st map of Mars

The oldest existing Mars map, 1659

Like Galilei before, Huygens was pointing his telescopes to nearly anything the sky presented him. He discovered the difference of polar and equatorial diameter of Jupiter, made a first map of Mars, calculated the Martian day to ca. 24 hours because of the movement of surface marks on the red planet, he proposed that Venus is covered by clouds, and he resolved the inner region of the Orion nebula and mapped the stars within. This brightest part of the nebula therefor is called Huygens region after him. He also discovered several other interstellar nebular and many double stars.

While his mathematical studies Huygens created a complete theory about the game of dice, which was published by his mathematics teacher Frans van Schooten (1615-1660) in 1657 as "De ludo aleae". With this Huygens is known as the founder of the theory of probabilistics. Although principially the pendulum clock was invented by Galilei and da Vinci already, Huygens was the first who worked out the practical problems of such a chronometer and let build many (different) clocks of that type. He also invented the clock with spiral spring or cycloid pendulum, which enables a more precise time measurement and helped to determine the longitude on sea. His inventions on chronometer he wrote down until 1673 in his book "Horologium oscillatorium".

1660 Huygens travelled to England. 1663 he was admitted as a member of honor at the British Royal Society. 1666 he travelled to Paris, where he was teaching at the university since 1681. Here he also made observations together with Giovanni Domenico Cassini at the 1672 finished observatory of Paris. After a serious illness he returned to Den Haag to the families house of Hofwijck. Briefly before his dead he wrote the book "The Discovery of Celestial Worlds: Theories about Inhabitants, Plants, and Products of Planetary Worlds" where he speculated about life not only on planets of the Sun, but also about life on worlds of other stars. Huygens died at June the 8th 1695 at the age of 66 years in Den Haag.


Only a few month after the 375th birthday of Huygens in the year 2004 the NASA/ESA-Saturn-probe Cassini reached the ringed planet and set out the daughter probe Huygens with destination Titan.

Carl Sagan: Unser Kosmos - Eine Reise durch das Weltall, Droemer-Knaur 1982
Joachim Herrmann (Ed.): Das große Lexikon der Astronomie, Orbis 1996
Fritz Krafft, Adolf Meyer-Abich (Eds.): Große Naturwissenschaftler - Biographisches Lexikon, Fischer 1970
Jesco von Puttkamer: Jahrtausendprojekt Mars, Langen Müller 1997

Page history:
created 1998-12-07 from himmel.98.08.html
modified 1998-12-07 to Huygens.html
modified 1998-12-08 translated
modified 1999-03-23 Cassini link added
modified 2000-02-04 History template and small changes
modified 2004-10-16 Layout changed and small actualizations

To the Sky over Berlin...To the astronomy links...-- jd --