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Biography of Christiaan Huygens, who dedicated his prodigious talent to study and research. He successfully explored the fields of Astronomy, Mathematics, Mechanics, Optics, and Geometry.

He was a contemporary of Giovanni Cassini (born in 1625) and theirs names are indelibly linked to the space probe that reached the planet Saturn, after a 7-year journey, which began on October 15, 1997.

Huygens probe
Artist’s conception of the Huygens probe separating from the Cassini orbiter and beginning its descent into the atmosphere of Titan. Credit: NASA/JPL, web “”.

The module that detached from the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft to land on the ground of Titan, Saturn’s main satellite, bore the name Huygens. It was a deserved recognition of his great contributions to the knowledge of the universe.

Biography of  Christiaan Huygen,’ first years in his life

Christiaan Huygens was born jn The Hague, Holland, in 1629. He was born of noble birth and in a very wealthy family.

Instead of leading a comfortable life, he dedicated his prodigious talent to study and research.

His intellectual curiosity knew no bounds, and he successfully explored the fields of Diplomacy and Law, Mathematics, Mechanics, Physics, Geometry and Astronomy.

Huygens in his youth

His father provided him with an excellent education and introduced him to the intellectual circles of the time.

The French mathematician René Descartes was a regular visitor to the Huygens’ house.

After studying Law and Mathematics, he accompanied his father, the Dutch ambassador, on trips to Copenhagen, Rome and Paris.

Once independent, he stayed a short time in Paris, where he met important French scientists.

In England Huygens learned about telescopes

In 1661, he went to London. There he verified the great advances in physics, mathematics and astronomy made by English scientists.

He immediately joined the newly founded Royal Society and was able to admire the new telescopes built in England.

Huygens built his own telescopes

His brother and he learned to cut lenses to make their own telescopes and obtained some of great quality through a special system achieved by trial and error.

In 1655, he finished a telescope that was barely 5 cm in diameter that allowed him to obtain about 50 magnifications, thanks to its measuring more than three and a half meters in length.

With this telescope he saw the ring that Galileo had already identified around the planet Saturn.

Telescope. Biography of Christiaan Huygens
An engraving of Huygens’s 210-foot aerial telescope, showing the eyepiece and objective mounts and connecting string. Credit: web “”.

But, on March 25 of that year he also saw a new satellite of Saturn.

After following it for several months, to be sure of its period and orbit, he released the news in 1656.

Apart from the Moon, this was the fifth satellite in the solar System. This fifth satellite  was named Titan.

These exciting discoveries encouraged him to continue manufacturing and polishing lenses with ever increasing focal lengths. He then tried aerial telescopes.

Huygens astronomical discoveries

With these telescopes of his invention he got a very clear image of the rings of Saturn. He even got a glimpse of the shadow these rings cast over the planet.

With the tenacity of great researchers he also studied the change in the shape and illumination of the rings as the planet rotated around the Sun.

By studying the Orion Nebula, he discovered that tiny stars exist within it.

Orion Nebula. Biography of Christiaan Huygens
Orion Nebula M42. Credit: Wikipedia

In 1658, while still residing in Paris, he designed a micrometer to measure small angular distances. With this novel instrument he was able to determine the apparent size of the planets.

Huygens was honored as a great scientist

It is no wonder that in 1661, he was welcomed with open arms by the London Scientific Society.

In 1666, he accepted the invitation of Colbert, minister of Louis XIV, to return to Paris and join the French Academy of Sciences.

He stayed in Paris until 1681. In these 25 years, Huygens befriended numerous scientists of the time, especially Leibniz.

In addition to continuing with his astronomical observations, he was a pioneer in various fields of Mathematics of Probability, Geometry and Physics.

In 1681 he moved again to London, where he met Isaac Newton.

Finally, in 1689 he returned to Holland shortly before his death.

Saturn Huygens. Biography of Christiaan Huygens
The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft reaching Saturn. Credit: ESA

The Cassini-Huygens mission, involving ESA, NASA and the Italian Space Agency, launched from Florida in October 1997.

It took almost seven years to reach Saturn, travelling nearly 3.5 billion kilometres.

The 5.6 tonne spacecraft was made up of two parts – the Cassini orbiter and the Huygens probe.