Optics are everything

I mentioned previously that I took my work camera along on our recent trip up north. One of the things I love about it is its ability to take night photos. Now, mind you, it’s not really capable of taking those dazzling photos of the Milky Way you may have seen here and there — how I wish it could. But it can gather in a lot of light in the midst of darkness and put together a good photograph when most cameras would return only an image of a shadow in a coal mine.

So I had an agenda the night we were in Mackinaw City. First, I wanted to get some night photos of the Mackinac Bridge. If you’re from Michigan, you already know. If not, this is probably the most iconic sight of our state, the five-mile long suspension bridge that connects the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of our state.

The “Mighty Mac” Mackinac Bridge by night. Thanks, optics!

Second, I wanted to go to the Headlands International Dark Sky Park to see just how well this camera could do at night. The Headlands is a relatively new park dedicated to giving night time visitors the best viewing possible of the night time sky, free of light pollution from nearby cities.

In my experimenting with optics and cameras, I again felt kinship with my father, who had been a professional photographer. And also, I was reminded of Baruch Spinoza, who we remember as a philosopher, but who actually depended on the art of optics and lens grinding to pay the bills for much of his life.

Light dawns on the Dutch Republic

During its Golden Age, the Dutch Republic became a hub of many things: the spice and sugar trade, diamond crafting, master artworks — and optics. There is some debate as to who first invented the telescope and where, but the first patent for one was filed by Hans Lippershey in Middleburg in the Dutch province of Zeeland in 1608. Several Dutch spectacle makers lay claim to being the first to invent the microscope — Lippershey, Zacharias Janssen or Hans Mertens.

But why the Netherlands?

Optics wasn’t a young science. Scientists and curious minds had known for centuries that light moving through curved pieces of glass changed the way they eye perceived objects. The first spectacles were made around 1286 in Pisa, Italy. Artisans and scientists steadily improved on the technology in the ensuing years.

It’s not hard to imagine why the Dutch would have such an interest. Living below sea level and with so much of their livelihood depending on shipping, the ability to see things far on the horizon would be a great asset during peaceful times and offer both an offensive and defensive advantage during times of war.

Gallileo, by Peter Paul Reubens

Then, there were the religious considerations. The Dutch were by far not the only nation interested in optics. In Italy, for instance, Gallileo was incredibly interested in the new technology of telescopes and what they could teach him about the universe. But he paid an immense price for the knowledge. When his discoveries proved that the earth was not the center of the universe, the Catholic Church censored and imprisoned him under house arrest in 1633 until his death 11 years later. It took until 1992 for Pope John Paul II to admit that the church had been “in error.”

The Dutch Republic, meanwhile, had just fought for its independence from Spain and the Catholic church, and it was all too happy to draw distinctions between its society and theirs. Offering freedom to scientists and philosophers was one of the ways it did this, so it placed very few restrictions (compared to other governments of the day) on the work of scientists or the way they published their findings.

Titans of telescopes and mughals of microscopes

Just as it is today, technology in the 1600s developed quickly once it was introduced. The microscope and telescope were both invented around the turn of the 17th Century. A few decades into that century, many innovators in the Netherlands were hard at work developing ways to improve on the new technology, make it more user-friendly and to document the new discoveries made using the new developments in optics.

Christiaan Huygens

(Interestingly, the development of the telescope around 1600 means that all those cartoons and re-enactments we’ve seen of Christopher Columbus hoisting a telescope as he spots the Americas are an impossible anachronism!)

Christiaan Huygens was a polymath who is best associated with the invention of the pendulum clock, the discovery of Saturn’s rings and the improvement of the telescope. He developed the … wait for it … Huygenian Eyepiece for a telescopes, the first compound eyepieces. It was an advance because it got rid of a distortion known as chromatic aberration, giving viewers a more accurate view of what they were seeing.

(Fun side note: Christiaan’s father was the noted statesman Constantijn Huygens, who was Rembrandt van Rijn’s first patron. As they say, it’s all about who you know.)

“The Astronomer,” by Johannes Vermeer. Some believe Antony van Leeuwenhoek was the model for the painting.

The other big name in Dutch optics is Antony van Leeuwenhoek, who didn’t invent the microscope, but who used it to great effect. He is sometimes called the father of microbiology because he put anything, and I mean anything, under his microscope. Bee stingers. Tooth plaque, which led to the discovery of bacteria. Blood. His own spunk, which led to the discovery of sperm. Yeah. Van Leeuwenhoek had no scientific training himself and he wasn’t much for art, so he hired someone to sketch the things he saw and he sent them to the Academy in London, where they were well received and his fame was established.

The daily grind

These weren’t the only people in the Dutch optics game, however. Several others were intrigued by the developing technology and experimenting with lenses and light. Among them was renegade philosopher Baruch Spinoza, recently released from his obligations as a member of the Portuguese Sephardic community in Amsterdam.

Moonset at the Headlands International Dark Sky Park

After a period of study with a Latin teacher in Amsterdam post-excommunication, Spinoza moved to Leiden, settling in a small village just outside the college town. There, he put out a shingle as a lens grinder, where he worked on components for microscopes and components by day while apparently working on his philosophical works and meeting with collegiants by night.

And by all accounts, he was quite good at it, too. Even Christiaan Huygens praised his work, and Spinoza is believed to have been friends with both Christiaan and his brother, Constantijn Jr.

One of the microscopes developed by Spinoza was also used by biologist Dirk Kerckring, who married the daughter of Spinoza’s former Latin teacher, as well.

One starts to get the feeling that the Dutch Republic was a small village after all, where everyone somehow knew everyone else.

But grinding lenses had drawbacks, too. No matter how good he was at it, the profession didn’t provide a great living. Spinoza lived modestly, though he always lived within his means. But worse, being around so much silicate dust and breathing it in may have been the ultimate cause of his death at the young age of 44.

6 thoughts on “Optics are everything

  1. It never occurred to me that advances in science could be motivated (at least in part) by a desire to differentiate oneself from one’s foes. Now that I think of it, lens grinding was a huge factor in advances in astronomy and hence, challenges to the Catholic heliocentric worldview.

    I did not know the role of the Dutch in optics. Learn something new every day!


      1. Van Leeuwenhoek needed to step away from the glass occasionally 😛

        And of course, the Catholics embraced the incorrect *geocentric* model of the universe. Serves me right for commenting while tired!


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