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Huygens’s Lens

This struck me as such a remarkable image, one that I have found in my just nascent research into Spinoza’s lens-grinding techniques (Huygens was a companion and nearby neighbor of Spinoza’s in the years 1664 and ’65). This is the lens with which Huygens discovered the first moon of Saturn (in March of 1655), and then the rings, as unlike Descartes before him he embodied his studies on the nature of optics.

There are several things that are eye-catching. First is its thinness and size. Likely ground by hand, it is merely 5.7 centimeters across and yet has a focal length of over 3 meters. It is only 3.4 millimeters thick.

Then there is the inscription at the edges, found scratched into the wax-yellow material:

A line from Ovid:

Admovere oculis distantia sidera nostris : They carried distant stars to ours eyes.

In anagram:

Saturno luna sua circunducitur diebus sexdecim horis quatuor : With Saturn, his moon circles itself around in 16 days, 4 hours”

It is this artifact of discovery, the materiality of the lens, emphasized by inscription, the presence of the poetry and the observation, that we glimpse something of the physicality of sciences, and the conceptions that enlighten it.

Later, when other moons besides this one were discovered, Huygens simply called this moon, “my moon”. One gets a sense of the personal, material and historic conception of invention.

 

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