Who was the greatest scientist alive during the period between Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton? It was Dutch polymath Christiaan Huygens who made huge contributions to astronomy, optics, and mechanics. His improvement of lenses for telescopes and invention of pendulum clocks, discovery of the first satellite and the ring around Saturn, and his wave theory of light are just a few of his accomplishments. After his death, however, his greatness was unjustly eclipsed by Newton.
Although this is mainly a biography of Huygens, it tries to place his life in the bigger context of the time he lived in. The 17th century was the time of the Scientific Revolution which prepared the ground for the Enlightenment. Famous scientists like Fermat, Leibniz, or Cassini, noted philosophers like Descartes and Spinoza, and other illustrious personalities like Rembrandt or William of Orange pop up left and right in this book. Discoveries are made and theories developed, the French Academy of Sciences is founded, which Huygens became a member of, and a lot of the action takes place in Paris and England. All this should make for an exciting and dazzling picture of the time and Huygens’s place in it, but instead it often feels as if the picture is so out of focus that you can’t see what it is supposed to be anymore.
Aldersey-Williams goes on a lot of tangents in order to explain the importance of this time in regards to the scientific community and the significant discoveries, but it often comes across as rambling, and it made me lose interest in some places. The focus should have been more firmly on Huygens himself because as a discussion of the Scientific Revolution, it remains too superficial and skips too much important information or barely touches on it. It is not satisfying in that regard, so I think that the scope should have been narrowed in order to go deeper on the main topic. Specifically, I would have appreciated it if Huygens’s scientific accomplishments were discussed more thoroughly. Even though this is not intended to be a science book, a little more explaining would not have been amiss.
Nonetheless, there are some parts that I enjoyed a lot, like the scene-setting at the beginning which describes the Dutch Golden Age in which the Dutch Republic was at or near the top in many areas, be they cultural, economic, or scientific. Also the Huygens family’s involvement with the House of Orange is an engaging subplot in the book. Last but not least, I really appreciate Huygens and his achievements given at least some of the attention they deserve.