Tick Tock Tick Tock Titan… Alliteration is fun to use as a memory aid or just to bring a smile. In this case, the man who invented the mechanism for pendulum regulated time pieces is the same gentleman who discovered the largest moon of the planet Saturn, Titan.
Christiaan Huygens was an important horologist (one who measures time or constructs time instruments), mathematician, physicist, and astronomer. Huygens is also famous for postulating that light is consisted of waves. This is now known as the Huygens-Fresnel Principle. This concept is still in use today as we understand the duality of the wave/photon properties of light.
Using the knowledge about light, Huygens experimented with optical lenses in tandem in their use as projectors. By all rights, Huygens should have been given credit as the pioneer inventor, developer and designer of the “magic lantern”. However, the German professor Athanasius Kirchner has been credited due to his use of Huygens’ research material.
You can see where Huygens’ knowledge of optics and inate intelligence matched up with his curiosity about astronomical observations comes into play. Huygens is especially known for his studies of the planet Saturn. In 1655, he wrote that Saturn was encircled by “a thin, flat ring, nowhere touching, and inclined to the ecliptic.”
It was on March 25th of the same year that Huygens focused his newly designed, modern telescope onto one of Saturn’s moons. As it turns out, the moon, Titan, is one of the most interesting satellites in the solar system. Some astronomers describe the orb as a “planetlike moon”. It is the only moon in our system with a dense atmosphere. It’s also the only body, aside of earth, to display stable surface bodies of liquid. Titan is also the second largest moon in our solar system. The largest is Jupiter’s Ganymede. Titan is actually larger in size than planet Mercury, but not as dense.
Titan is made of frozen water ice and rock material. Nine years ago, liquid hydrocarbon lakes were discovered at the polar regions of that moon. The atmosphere is largely nitrogen with methane and ethane. Because Titan has an atmosphere, there is weather and climate. Wind is present along with liquid methane and ethane “rain”. There is more than a passing similarity to earth conditions, albeit much, much colder than we experience here.
Aside from Huygens’ observations of the Saturn system, he studied the Orion Nebula. His drawings of the nebula are the first in history. He published his findings and drawings in 1659. On May 3, 1661, Huygens was a member of a team, including Thomas Streete and Richard Reeves of London to observe the planet Mercury pass over the Sun. They used a new telescope designed and built by Reeves.
Somewhat following in the footsteps of Copernicus, Huygens believed that extraterrestrial lifeforms exist somewhere among the many galaxies. In his book Cosmotheoros, he hypothesised that there are other planets similar to earth and that life may have developed on them. Huygens feared that Cosmotheoros would lead to persecution by the church. He rightly believed the Inquisition could torture and kill him. So, he decided to have the book published posthumously.
Christiaan Huygens died in The Hague on July 8, 1695. His legacy bequeathed to civilization, science and thought has escaped popular fame, but his contributions have not been forgotten. Many of his inventions and writings remain important to this day. His interest in the Saturn lunar/ring system and Titan is shared by many of us moderns, too.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that Huygens experimented with the concept of internal combustion engines. He designed but never built one that was fueled by gunpowder. His research was utilized much later in history, using petroleum based fuel instead of gunpowder.