Christiaan Huygens and the culture of 'popular' science. Hugh Aldersey-Williams meets Fabian Kraemer

In cooperation with the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS-KNAW) and Nederlands Letterenfonds

09jan2019 17:00 - 18:30


When is science popular, and why are scientists sometimes unenthusiastic about this side of the sciences? Far from a modern concept, translating scientific discoveries and narratives to a broad audience has long been a passion of many great explorers and researchers. In the seventeenth century, Christiaan Huygens made spreading the discoveries of the budding Enlightenment his life’s work, before the rise of the lauded Isaac Newton. How can we take histories such as Huygens’ out of the ivory tower?

Christiaan Huygens was Europe’s greatest scientist of the third quarter of the seventeenth century, at the height of the Dutch Golden Age. Astronomer, physicist, mathematician and inventor, he discovered the ring(s) of Saturn, invented the pendulum clock, and devised a wave theory of light. Yet his achievements have been almost entirely eclipsed in the anglophone world by his perceived successor, Isaac Newton. 

In many ways, however, Huygens was the better scientist, more rigorous in his methods, more judicious in his choice of proper topics for enquiry, always on the lookout for practical applications of his work, and more engaged with his peers – qualities acknowledged as essential in modern science.

He was also a major figure in the internationalization of science, a Dutchman who shaped the French Academy of Sciences, and the first foreign member of the Royal Society of London – this despite frequent wars between the Netherlands, France and England at the time. He spent some of the most productive years of his career in Paris, so how important were his Dutch roots to the kind of science he pursued and the way he pursued it?

And how can his story be retold for readers who may never have heard of him? In this event, best-selling author Hugh Aldersey-Williams discusses Huygens as a scientist – perhaps even a popular one – and the translation of science to a broad audience. His fellow historian and writer Fabian Kraemer acts as a discussant, providing questions and provocations to potential popularisations of Huygens, and history.

About the speakers

Hugh Aldersey-Williams is a journalist and author. After studying the natural sciences at the University of Cambridge, he wrote numerous on issues surrounding natural and man-made designs, such as Periodic Tales (2011) which takes a comprehensive look through world history to detail where, how, and why humanity discovered the elements.

Fabian Kraemer holds a PhD in Early Modern and Modern History and English Literary History from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, where he currently researches. His main research interests are the history of the ‘two cultures’ of humanities as opposed to sciences, learned reading and writing practices and their relation to ‘scientific’ observation in the Early Modern study of nature, and the history of the case history.


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