Peter the Great and Christiaan Huygens

“This is the universe: big isn’t it?” – Peter the Great and Christiaan Huygens

Museum Boerhaave is currently showing an exhibition for children aged 6-12 (but also delightful for grown-ups), highlighting some of the inventions of the greatest Dutch scientist of the Golden Age: Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695).

Christiaan Huygens at the age of 42.

The versatile inventor Huygens conducted many experiments with his brother Constantijn and together they also eagerly watched the skies. Looking at the planets with a telescope of his own invention, Huygens conjectured that it might be possible for vegetable, mineral, animal – and so also human – life to exist on other planets under conditions analogous to those of our own planet. He put these observations in writing in a book called Cosmotheoros, in which he argued:

… who can possibly think that of all the planets revolving around the sun, our small planet Earth is the only one to have animals and creatures able to look at everything in the skies with admiration; And that the Maker of things did not offer any of this to the other planets, and created such huge objects to no other purpose than that we tiny human beings might see their light, and possibly investigate the revolutions of these planets? (pp. 144-145, 1754 ed.)

First edition of Cosmotheoros, The Hague, Adrian Moetjens, 1698.

Huygens also believed it was possible that there were innumerable worlds and more solar systems in the universe than our own. Theologically explosive stuff that had cost Giordano Bruno, whom Huygens mentions a few times, his life a century earlier. But Peter the Great was delighted when he was told about the Cosmotheoros, which had been posthumously published in the Dutch Republic in 1698. The personal library of the tsar contains a copy of the Latin edition of this work, as well as Huygens’ Astroscopia Compendiaria, published in 1684. Peter the Great embraced the speculations that shocked many of his contemporaries, especially the orthodoxy, in Russia. Having become acquainted with Huygens’ Cosmotheoros in 1717 while on his Second Embassy to Western Europe, he immediately commissioned a Russian translation. By that time, the work had already appeared in a Dutch translation, by Petrus Rabus, in 1699, and in an English translation which was published that same year. A French and a German translation followed in 1702 and 1703 respectively. Russia joined the modern nations of the West just over a decade later when Jacob Bruce, one of the tsar’s trusted advisors, translated Huygens’ Cosmotheoros.

A page from Huygens’ autograph copy of Cosmotheoros.

Cosmotheoros has the distinction of being the first scientific work to have appeared in Russia and in Russian, at the tsar’s express orders. The director of typography in St Petersburg, Mikhail Petrovich Avramov, a man of conservative religious and political views, was shocked by the blasphemous implications of Cosmotheoros, calling the work a ‘satanic perfidy’ and referring to Huygens as the ‘delirious author Kristofor Huiens’. Why was the book so shocking? This and more in a next blog on Huygens’ Cosmotheoros.

Cis van Heertum

Works consulted:

Robert Collis, The Petrine Instauration. Religion, Esotericism and Science at the Court of Peter the Great, Leiden: Brill 2012, pp. 116-118.

Christiaan Huygens, Cosmotheoros (facsimile ed.). Utrecht: Epsilon 1989, with an introduction by H.A.M. Snelders.

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