A Brill Calendar: April 14
"A Street Named After You"
Few Hollanders – if any – are honoured by a Parisian street-name.
Christiaan Huygens (April 14 1629 – July 8 1695; both The Hague) is one. There is a typically ‘Franco-centric’ reason for this ‘Avenue Huyghens’ (the surname’s alternative spelling). The Northerner – a superb mathematician and universally admired genius in physics – was a Founder of the French Academy of Sciences in 1666. Huygens lived in France for almost a quarter of his life, until 1681. The Institute paid him better than others, even providing a dwelling in its buildings, so that Christiaan didn’t have to depend on his illustrious family. (His grandfather, and his father Constantijn acted as secretaries, diplomats and advisers to the Princely House of Orange.)
It is seldom that a universal innovator of sciences – from a wave-theory of light, or the first precision clock to discovering Saturn’s shapely rings and a theory of hazard – occupied such a lowly position for so long in the pecking-order of greatness. A prime reason for this quirk must be that Grand-Seigneur Huygens, never teaching or lecturing in Universities, hardly felt a need for his work to appear in print; a main exception being his ‘Horologium Oscillatorium’ (Paris, 1673) – a kind of ‘Orange clock-work’ - dedicated to the French Sun King, then at war with the Dutch Republic.
Huygens willed his whole archive to his Leyden Alma Mater, where he studied mathematics rather than law, for which his parent Constantijn had ear-marked him. Scholarly efforts to edit and publish the ‘Oeuvres complètes’ in print started surprisingly late in 1888; a neat case of tardy national pride. 120 years later, the originals are crown-jewels of Leyden’s University Library.
It typifies Dutch national character that calling something or somebody ‘un-Dutch’ is usually a laudatory expression; and it fits Christiaan Huygens like a glove. When a National Historical Canon, endorsed by Government, came into being in 2006, Huygens was included by way of an after-thought, after its first official presentation.