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JRASC October 2004 - The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

ReflectionsIn Search of Huygensby David M.F. Chapman (dave.chapman@ns.sympatico.ca)In Reflections, three issues ago (April),we commemorated the 375thanniversary of the birth of Dutchscientist Christiaan Huygens (1629-95),a giant of 17th-century science who madeenormous contributions to mathematics,physics, and astronomy. Regular readersmay recall that I was planning a July tripto The Netherlands to attend an acousticsconference and that I was hoping to makea pilgrimage to the home of this productiveand influential man. Things did not turnout exactly as I had hoped, as you willhear, but I did enjoy an unexpectedscientific surprise connecting Huygens,my acoustics conference, and Titan (Saturn’slargest Moon).The Tourist StoryMy acoustics conference was held at theTechnical University of Delft, in the smallcity of that name between Amsterdamand Rotterdam. Delft is known for blueporcelain china and as the home of theDutch painter Vermeer. In fact, a recentbook and film entitled The Girl with aPearl Earring, inspired by a Vermeerpainting, are both set in Delft, and someof the movie scenes were filmed in thatcity. The film opened in Halifax in a smalltheatre a few months before my trip, somy wife and I were able to get a sneakpreview of the conference city!Being so small, Delft did not takelong to tour, and it was not long beforethe family wanted to venture furtherafield. Fortunately, this was not difficult,as Holland is a small country, denselypopulated, with an excellent train system.The next city along the train line is TheHague (Den Haag in Dutch), the hometo many international organizations. Italso happens to be the city in whichChristiaan Huygens spent his first andlast years. Since the art gallery there hassome Rembrandts and Vermeers (includingthe above-mentioned painting), therewere more than enough reasons to makethe 15-minute train trip.The tourist map of The Hague didnot indicate any obvious memorial ormuseum dedicated to Huygens, so Ienquired at the tourist information officenear the train station. My first attemptwas a failure, as the young man behindthe counter gave me only a puzzled lookwhen I asked about Huygens. Then I wrotedown the name, and his eyes lit up. Heread it back to me in Dutch, and to thisday I have not been able to reproduce thesounds he made. I do not mean to bedisrespectful of the Dutch language, but— to my ear — the first syllable of“Huygens” sounded like someone clearinghis throat. There simply is not a soundlike this in the English language, and Iexpect this would be a huge impedimentto an English-speaker learning Dutch. Inany case, once the language barrier washurdled, I was on my way.I was directed on the map to a suburbof Den Haag called Voorburg, where thereis a museum dedicated to Huygens.Following my instructions, I returned tothe train station and bought a ticket forthat place, on the route to Gouda. I goton the train, and got some very funnylooks when I got off only 5 minutes laterat the very next stop. I think most localsFigure 1. — The Huygens Museum in Voorburg,The Netherlands (photo by David Chapman).would have taken the tram. Anyway, Ifound my way there. I was not sure whereto go, so I wandered in the vicinity of thestation along some very picturesquestreets. I knew I was getting “warm” whenI came across the “Huygens Pharmacy.”Finally, I found a map of localattractions, and located the HuygensMuseum, which turned out to be abouta five-minute walk away.The building was very unusual: small,almost a tower, surrounded by beautifulgrounds, on the edge of a wide river. Bythis time it was late afternoon and a lightrain had begun to fall. It looked closed,and I was perfectly correct, but I sawpeople coming and going all the same,so I went up to the door and knocked. A188JRASC October / octobre 2004

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