1621 – Holland

woodblock print portrait of WILLEBRORD SNELL ©


‘During refraction of light, the ratio of the sines of the angles of incidence ( i ) and refraction ( r ) is a constant equal to the refractive index of the medium’

In equation form: n1sini = n2 sinr 
where n1 and n2 are the respective refractive indices of the two media.

The refractive index of a substance is a measure of its ability to bend light. The higher the number the better light is refracted. The refractive index of diamond, 2.42, is the highest of all gems.

Refraction is the change in direction of a ray of light when it crosses the boundary between two media. It happens because light has different speeds in different media. A ray of light entering a medium where the speed of light is less (from air to water, for example) bends towards the perpendicular to the boundary of the two media. It bends away from the perpendicular when it crosses from water to air. Refraction was known to ancient Greeks, but Snell, a Dutch mathematician, was the first to study it.

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1674 – Netherlands

Portrait of Leeuwenhoek

Leeuwenhoek was probably inspired to take up microscopy after seeing a copy of HOOKE’s Micrographia, though as a draper he was likely to have already been using lenses to examine cloth.
Unlike Hooke, Leeuwenhoek did not use a two lens compound microscope, but a single high quality lens, which could be described simply as a magnifying glass rather than a microscope. Leeuwenhoek is known to have made over 500 of these single–lens microscopes. They are simple devices just a few inches long, with the lens mounted in a tiny hole in a brass plate. The specimen is mounted on a point that sticks up in front of the lens. Two screws move the specimen for focusing. All else that is needed is careful lighting and a very steady, sharp eye.

After an introduction to Henry Oldenburg of the Royal Society in London from Dutch physician and anatomist Regnier de Graaf (discoverer of the egg-making follicles in the human ovary which now bear his name), Leeuwenhoek was encouraged to write to the Society’s journal ‘Philosophical Transactions’.

Leeuwenhoek’s letters were translated into Latin and English from the Dutch and he reported seeing tiny creatures in lake-water.

‘ I found floating therein divers earthly particles, and some green streaks, spirally wound serpentwise, and orderly arranged after the manner of copper or tin worms which distillers use to cool their liquors as they distil over. The whole circumference of each of these streaks was about the thickness of a hair of one’s head ’

Leeuwenhoek’s descriptions of ‘animalcules’ in water from different sources – rainwater, pond water, well water, sea water and so on – were verified by independent witnesses, including the vicar of Delft. Hooke too confirmed his findings with his own observations performed in front of expert witnesses, including Sir Christopher Wren.
Leeuwenhoek came close to understanding that bacteria were germs that cause disease but it took another century before LOUIS PASTEUR made that step.

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1690 – Holland



‘Every point on a wavefront can act as a new source of waves’

A line perpendicular to the wave fronts is called a ray and this ray shows the direction of the wave.

The Huygens construction, published in ‘Traite de la Lumiere‘ (’Treatise on Light’, 1690) gives an explanation for the way light is reflected and refracted.

Huygens said that light consists of a disturbance spreading from its source as spherical pressure waves having wave fronts perpendicular to the direction of their motion and correctly anticipated that in a denser medium light would travel more slowly. This hypothesis was largely ignored at the time as it conflicted with NEWTON‘s theory. Huygens’ view, when re-discovered and championed by THOMAS YOUNG (1773-1829) would eventually become the more commonly accepted version.

He invented a pendulum clock (1656) and also discovered Titan, the first observed moon of Saturn (1665).

Saturn's moon Titan. Notable Features - Relatively smooth surface with almost no craters; Color variation across the planet (previously thought to be seas of methane, but that has been disproved. True origin has not been discovered.) At least one lake of liquid ethane is on the surface at the present time

Huygens discovered that a simple pendulum does not keep perfect time but completes smaller swings faster than big swings. This is because the weight or ‘bob’ of the pendulum follows a circular path. Huygens’ realisation that a pendulum mimicking a circle’s curve does not maintain a perfectly equal swing and that in order to do this it actually needs to follow a ‘cycloidal’ arc, set him on the path to designing the first successful pendulum clock.

Published ‘Horologium‘ (1658), ‘Horologium Oscillatorium‘ (1673) in which he showed that if the bob’s path were a cycloid (the curved path traced out by a point on the rim of a wheel as it rolls along) instead of a circle, it would be isynchronous (keeping equal time) no matter what the length of the swing. He made the pendulum’s swing cycloidal by suspending a rigid pendulum rod on two chords whose swing either way was limited by two plates called cycloidal checks.

GALILEO had considered the timekeeping possibilities of a swinging pendulum and Huygens successfully tied it with an escapement mechanism.
He explored the mathematics associated with pendulums – which led him, together with HOOKE, to an early prediction of the link between the elliptical orbits of the planets and the inverse square law of gravity. His work was a milestone, playing a key part in the understanding of centrifugal force. It helped to confirm Newton’s laws of motion by showing how an object will travel in a straight line unless pulled into a curved path by some other force.

Huygens was one of the founders of the French Académie des sciences in Paris.

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1715 – Netherlands

‘The kelvin scale is more suitable for scientific purposes and the celsius scale is neater, based on decimals. The advantage of using the fahrenheit scale is that it is designed with everyday use in mind, rarely needing negative degrees’

Even as late as the start of the eighteenth century, scientists had no reliable means of accurately measuring temperature and a uniform scale by which to describe the limited measurements they could make.

Fahrenheit thermometer


GALILEO had used the knowledge that air expands when heated and contracts when cooled to build a primitive instrument. Using a cylindrical tube placed in water, he noted that when the air in the device was hotter, it pushed the level of the water downwards, just as it rose when the air-cooled. He realised that readings from the device were unreliable because the volume and therefore the behaviour of the air also fluctuated according to atmospheric pressure. Gradually scientists began using more stable substances to improve the accuracy of the reading, with alcohol being introduced as a possible substitute late in the seventeenth century.

Fahrenheit knew that the boiling points of different liquids varied according to fluctuations in atmospheric pressure; the lower the pressure, the lower the boiling point. A producer of meteorological instruments, he first achieved progress in 1709 with an improved alcohol thermometer. Building on the work of GUILLAUME AMONTONS (1663-1705) who investigated the properties of mercury, Fahrenheit took the measurement of temperature into another domain. He produced his first mercury thermometer, particularly useful in its application over a wide range of temperatures, in 1714.

In 1715 he complemented his breakthroughs in instrument making with the development of the fahrenheit temperature scale. Taking 0degrees to be the lowest temperature he could produce (from a blend of ice and salt), he used the freezing point of water and the temperature of the human body as his other key markers in its formulation.

In his initial calculations, he placed water’s freezing point at 30degrees F and the body’s temperature at 90degrees F. Later revisions changed this to 32degrees for the freezing point of water and 96degrees for the body temperature of humans. The boiling point of water worked out to be 212degrees F, giving a hundred and eighty incremental steps between freezing and boiling.

picture of the head and face of DANIEL FAHRENHEIT ©


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1890 – Ireland
1904 – Holland

‘A moving object appears to contract’

The contraction is negligible unless the object’s speed is close to the speed of light.

In 1890 Fitzgerald suggested that an object moving through space would shrink slightly in its direction of travel by an amount dependent on its speed.

In 1904 Lorentz independently studied this problem from an atomic point of view and derived a set of equations to explain it. A year later, Einstein derived Lorentz’s equations independently from his special theory of relativity.

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1911 – Holland

‘At very low temperatures, some materials conduct electricity without any resistance: that is, virtually without any loss of energy’

Photograph of KAMERLINGH ONNES with his apparatus in 1926


These materials are called superconductors. In 1908 Kamerlingh-Onnes found that metals such as mercury, lead and tin become superconductors at very low temperatures.

It is now known that about 24 elements and hundreds of compounds become superconductors near absolute zero.

Superconducting technology advanced little until 1986, when scientists developed a metallic ceramic compound that becomes superconductive at around the temperature of liquid nitrogen – minus 196 degrees Celsius.

picture of the Nobel medal - link to nobelprize.org




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