Today, a tale of two Huygens and John Donne. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Christiaan Huygens is well
known to anyone who has studied physics. But few
people know about his father, Constantijn
Huygens. Father and son together take us all
the way from the Elizabethan Age to modern physics.
The father was born in Holland in 1596. He was
wonderfully favored with intelligence and physical
grace -- a linguist, athlete, writer, musician and
At twenty-two Constantijn Huygens began a
high-profile international life. He studied at
Oxford and Cambridge. He played the lute for the
same King James who authorized the Bible
translation. King James eventually knighted him. He
joined diplomatic missions. And he almost killed
himself scaling the spire of Strasburg Cathedral.
he made friends of Francis Bacon (who set down the
modern scientific method) and the poet John Donne.
His respect for Donne colored his life and his
son's as well. Constantijn Huygens went on to write
plays, prose, and poetry. He honored Donne by
translating his poems. If you know Donne's complex
style, you know that was no small task, but Huygens
was Holland's leading poet.
His son Christiaan Huygens was born when
Constantijn was 33. Early in his life Christiaan
took up optics. He and his brother developed new
means for grinding telescope lenses. Out of that
they first described the multiple rings of Saturn,
and they identified Orion as a nebula. Next
Christiaan perfected the pendulum clock, which had been
suggested by Galileo and his son. He wrote
laws of mechanics that would serve Newton's theory
Christiaan Huygens worked in France until the
French started making it hard on Protestants. Then
he went back to Holland, where he developed the
wave theory of light. He died in 1695, and his last
work, published after his death, was a remarkable
speculation on the nature and likelihood of
So we go back to Donne's poetry and find it filled
with references to the new sciences. Galileo's
telescope had just shown that the moon's surface was rough and the
sun was spotted. Almost
immediately, Donne wrote of the moon and sun, that
the crucifixion had "made [God's] footstool crack,
and the Sunne winke." To a failed love, he cries,
"My constancie I to the planets give ... And all
your graces no more use shall have, Than a Sun
dyall in a grave."
We find John Donne's scientific themes woven
through Christiaan Huygens's work.
Twentieth-century quantum mechanics eventually
fused Huygens's wave theory of light with Newton's
corpuscular theory. When J. Robert Oppenheimer
built the atom bomb on those ideas, he named the
bomb's test site Trinity. Asked why, the
conscience-wracked Oppenheimer once more quoted
Donne who had written of the Trinity, "Batter my
heart, three person'd God."
The lineage from philosophers like Galileo and
Bacon to modern physics is clear enough. But I
offer you this remarkable piece of binding tissue:
A father and son who read poetry and put it to use.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
My main sources for this episode were the 1897 and
1970 Encyclopaedia Britannica articles on
Constantijn and Christiaan Huygens.
Donne, J., John Donne. (John Hayward, ed.),
London: Penguin Books, 1952.
Tollefsen, R., Huygens, Sir Constantijn. The New
Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians, Vol.
8, (Stanley Sadie, ed.) pp. 831-832.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H.