Launch lecture by Professor Lisa Jardine

Sir Isaac Newton and Christiaan Huygens: Anglo-Dutch Science and Politics around 1688: Professor Lisa Jardine, Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, 17 March 2014

17 March 2014

The Gustave Tuck lecture theatre was full last week for the official launch of UCL's new Centre for Low Countries Studies, with the Centre's spirit of fostering exchange and interaction in full flow.

Academics and students from London universities as well as Cambridge and Sheffield attended the event, together with representatives from the Dutch and Belgian embassies, Flanders House and the Dutch Language Union. Guests were welcomed by Professor Jo Wolff, UCL's Dean of Arts and Humanities, and had a chance to chat and forge new links at the lively reception which followed in the North Cloisters.

The opening lecture was given by Professor Lisa Jardine on the scientific and other connections between Sir Isaac Newton and Christiaan Huygens at the time of the so-called Glorious Revolution - which, as she observed, was neither very glorious nor very revolutionary, but rather a Dutch invasion that brought the stadholder William III of Orange and his wife Mary Stuart from the Dutch Republic to the English throne. 

Illustrating the invasion with eyewitness accounts of the magnificent Dutch fleet setting out from Holland and sailing through the Channel between the white cliffs of England and Calais, Lisa Jardine focused on the way the Dutch took over not just London but its whole machinery of state and court, and on the Dutch inner circle around William III.

Professor Jardine drew on unpublished material concerning the protagonists, from letters, diaries and other contemporary records held both in Britain and in the Netherlands, to describe in an almost day-to-day narrative how Christiaan Huygens at first followed the Dutch invasion in The Hague through letters from his brother Constantijn, the stadholder's secretary; then went over to London himself, where he attended meetings of the Royal Society, sought preferment for himself at court, and lobbied the King for his friend Newton to be made Master of Trinity College in Cambridge; and later returned to and continued to live and work in The Hague.

The personal connections between Newton and Huygens involved not just their scientific pursuits and experiments, discussion of Newton's Principia, its mathematics, and other new experiments in the field of chemistry and optics, but also their friendship and mutual understanding, and mundane affairs such as job-seeking and Royal Society infighting. 

Much of this Lisa Jardine illustrated using little-known sources - in Dutch, French, English, Latin and in code - that await study by scholars taking seriously the field of Low Countries Studies and Anglo-Dutch relations.

Such cross-disciplinary investigation, as Lisa Jardine maintained, can contribute much to our knowledge and understanding of the early modern cultural, social, economic, political and scientific relations between the Netherlands and Great Britain. 

As she demonstrated very clearly, the contact between Newton and Huygens constitutes a pivotal episode at the beginning of modern science. Newton's star continued to rise ever after. And imagine - as Lisa Jardine, in closing, invited the audience to do - what if Christiaan Huygens had not been refused a London position by King William? What impact might their cooperation in the Royal Society have had on the further development of modern science?

The mission of the UCL Centre for Low Countries Studies is to study a series of historic relationships like these and to nurture their further development in the present day.