More than an astronomer, Huygens revolutionized science

The 700-pound wok-shaped machine parachuted through smoggy skies, landed on a desolate landscape 291 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and radioed its data back to Earth.

Saturn’s largest moon – we saw through the lens of the Huygens probe last Friday – is a world of rivers, lakes, ice stones and orange methane haze. Titan is a world full of wonders.

The European Space Agency rightly named its exploratory probe to honor the brilliant 17th-century Holland native who originally set eyes on that far-away place. In 1655, Christiaan Huygens (approximate pronunciation: HOW-khens) first observed Titan through the lens of a 5-meter long telescope he built himself.

Huygens, however, did far more in his productive life than simply discover a moon.

He revolutionized science in many ways, impacting us even today. But unfortunately, just like the moon Titan, Huygens remains a big mystery to most people.

Born on April 14, 1629 in the Hague, Netherlands, the boy Huygens was exposed early in life to the wonders of the natural world through his father Constantijn, a wealthy diplomat. Growing up, Huygens made friends with the greatest minds of his age.

The artists Vermeer and Rembrandt exposed him to concepts of light. Push-the-envelop thinkers such as René Descartes and Blaise Pascal encouraged his eager mind in mathematics and astronomy.

Holland in that age was a global super power – made that way partly by its scientific pluck as a nation.

Dutch sailing ships used the latest technological advances and inventions to military and merchant-trade advantage.

And at a time when the Church barbequed daring thinkers elsewhere in Europe for biblical “heresies” – such as the notion the Earth and other planets orbit the sun – Huygens’s Holland encouraged the spread of revolutionary scientific ponderings.

Dutch publishers distributed bold ideas in best-seller books – some of the most popular written by Huygens himself.

A gadget fanatic, Huygens loved tinkering with the latest gizmos that entertained his curiosity. Still in his 20’s, he helped his friend Anton van Leeuwenhoek design the world’s first microscope.

Peering through the lens, the young men became the first humans to spy on the menagerie of “animalcules” inhabiting a drop of pond water. In awe, Huygens speculated the strange critters living in this tiny world might cause human illness. His germ theory served as a base for modern medicine.

And, Huygens also reasoned, if microscopic organisms floated in water, they might also float in the air around us.

His experiments showed air-bound microbes landed in water and grew there. He thus demolished forever the ancient notion of “spontaneous generation.” Huygens and Leeuwenhoek also first observed sperm cells, thus paving the road to human reproductive science. Their discovery bears on genetic research today.

Another of Huygens’s accomplishments impacting us is his invention of time-measuring devices for nautical and astronomical use.

He invented the pendulum clock and the spiral balance spring (still used in wind-up watches). He also invented an early slide projector and a noisy contraption called a “gunpowder engine” – a forerunner of modern combustion engines.

Playing with dice stimulated Huygens’s dynamic mind to come up with a “calculus of probability.”

His probability theory led later thinkers to the science of statistics and also various principles of quantum theory (without which our computers and cellphones would never exist).

Huygens greatly admired the English scientist Isaac Newton. In 1689, he traveled to London to meet the eminent discoverer of universal gravity.

Eavesdropping on the two most brilliant minds of the 17th century, you’d hear them argue for hours on the nature of light. Newton believed light consisted of particles; Huygens insisted on his own theory that light was actually made of waves. (Albert Einstein later proved both men correct.)

I’d like to think Huygens would feel genuinely pleased our modern high-tech lives are tightly woven with his scientific advances. He’d encourage us in a never-ending pursuit of scientific knowledge.

“Science,” he once boasted, “is my religion.”

He’d also surely scold Congress for its recent passage of the 2005 budget bill cutting $105 million – nearly 2 percent – of National Science Foundation funding.

The erosion of science in our high schools and research facilities imperils a nation’s future and a society’s advancement, he’d warn.

Most of all, I imagine, Huygens would encourage more public support for the SETI Institute in Mountain View now searching for signals of intelligent life among the stars. In his extraordinary book titled “Celestial Worlds Discover’d: Conjectures Concerning the Inhabitants, Plants and Productions of the Worlds in the Planets,” he speculates on what extraterrestrial life-forms might exist. Published in 1690, in it he wrote:

“We may mount from this Dull Earth, and viewing it from on high, consider whether nature has laid out all her cost and finery upon this small speck of Dirt. So, like Travelers into other distant countries, we shall be better able to judge of what’s done at home, know how to make a true estimate of, and set its own value upon everything. We shall be less apt to admire what this World calls great, shall nobly despise those Trifles the generality of Men set their Affections on, when we know that there are a multitude of such Earths inhabited and adorn’d as well as our own.”

Who knows? With his namesake probe’s landing last week, Christiaan Huygens’s belief of life on other worlds might very well be proven true.

Perhaps hidden somewhere in the scientific data, scientists will discover that water exists on Titan. Water might mean life – perhaps tiny microbes. Huygens’s early observation of “animalcules” through his microscope would have paved the way to that surprising find.

No doubt the astute man who discovered Titan would feel awe – and pride – at the space probe bearing his name.

No doubt he’d have us speculate what greater wonders still await discovery.

He’d remind us that throughout our universe seemingly countless worlds – many maybe holding astonishing life – still remain shrouded in mystery.

Humanity’s spirit of curiosity – Christiaan Huygens’s spirit – will no doubt lead us one day to unveil their secrets.

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