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History of science


The history of science at the Leiden Observatory group focuses its research on the extensive Leiden science archives, on Leiden scientists and on affiliated science museums, such as Museum Boerhaave (history of science), Museum Naturalis (natural history), and Teylers Museum (both science and art).

The Leiden Observatory Archives

Leiden Observatory has been a prominent international centre of astronomy since the nineteenth century. Fortunately, the astronomers have meticulously kept their papers and correspondence. As a result, the Leiden Observatory Archives are an extremely rich source for the history of science. It includes correspondence from almost every important astronomer of the past two centuries.

The Observatory Archives contain the complete scientific papers of Frederik Kaiser (1808-1872), H.G. van de Sande Bakhuyzen (1838-1923), Willem de Sitter (1872-1934), Jan Oort (1900-1992) and H.C. van der Hulst (1918-2000), as well as papers of other Observatory staff, including Ejnar Hertzsprung (1873-1967).

We are currently working on the description, conservation and partial digitalisation of the papers from the period before 1945. This project includes the papers of Kaiser and De Sitter. It is conducted in collaboration with Leiden University Library, and it is funded by the Gratama Fonds and the Dutch national program for the preservation of paper heritage Metamorfoze.

Contact: David Baneke,

Frederik Kaiser, popular astronomy, and the decline of natural theology

Throughout his remarkable career the Leiden astronomer Frederik Kaiser (1808-1872) struggled to revive Duch astronomy, which at the time was rather moribund. His efforts comprised establishing a culture of precision in Dutch astronomy, promoting an adequate observatory, and mobilizing public support through popularization. In spite of a lack of illustrations, his popular Starry Sky (1844) proved immensely succesful with the general public. This work differed in many respects from earlier Dutch popular writings, and helped to establish the new genre of popular science. Kaiser enunciated his ideosyncratic views on popularization in a lecture which he later published as a brochure. Whereas his research reflects the shift from the dilettant to the professional scientist in being focussed on precision measurement, his popular work likewise testified to the transition from natural philosophy to modern science.

Contact: Frans van Lunteren,

Jan Hendrik Oort and the rise of radio astronomy in the Netherlands

Jan Oort made his name in the 1920s and 1930s through his studies of the Galaxy. From the 1940s onward, he became a pioneer in the new field of radio astronomy, together with his pupil H.C. van de Hulst. Their efforts culminated in 1970 in the foundation of the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope, at the time the world's largest radio telescope. The aim of this project is to portray the rise of this new field of research from personal, institutional and political angles and to explain how the Netherlands became a centre of observational astronomy. Important source material is located at Leiden University. This includes the papers of Oort and Van de Hulst

Contact: Astrid Elbers, ,

The Leiden Institute of Physics Archives

In 1882 Heike Kamerlingh Onnes was appointed professor in experimental physics at Leiden University. Within a decade he built up from scratch a cryogenic research laboratory with the aim to test the molecular theories of J.D. van der Waals. In 1908 Kamerlingh Onnes was the first one to liquefy helium and in 1911 he discovered superconductivity. Important parts of the archives of Kamerlingh Onnes, his co-workers, his successors (Keesom, De Haas, Gorter) and the laboratory and the Leiden School of Instrument Makers are being preserved in the Leiden Institute of Physics. We are currently aiming at the description, conservation and partial digitalisation of these archives (1880-1960). Research includes the involvement of Leiden in the development of the International Temperature Scale (1928) and the Kamerlingh Onnes Laboratory during World War II.

Contact: Dirk van Delft,

Paul Ehrenfest

The Leiden physicist Paul Ehrenfest is best known as one of the key players in the revolutionary transformation of physics in the early decades of the twentieth century. He was among the first physicists to contribute to both relativity theory and quantum theory. His main contributions consisted not so much in innovative theoretical breakthroughs as in critical analysis of the foundations of the new physics, be it statistical mechanics, relativity theory or quantum physics. Ehrenfest also took a strong interest in social and political issues. He maintained strong ties with the Physics Laboratory of the Dutch electro-technical firm Philips and lobbied successfully for a Leiden chair in industrial physics. Moreover, he launched the career of Jan Tinbergen, the first Nobel laureate in economic sciences and founder of the Dutch Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis.

Contact: Frans van Lunteren,

History of Teylers Museum

Teylers Museum in Haarlem, the oldest museum in the Netherlands, is named after Pieter Teyler van der Hulst, an 18th century wealthy cloth merchant of Scottish descent. In his will he stipulated that his capital should be used to advance the arts and sciences. The Teyler legacy was split into three societies, one for religion, one for science, and one for the arts, known as the first, second, and third societies. The mission of the second society included research as well as education. To this end the caretakers founded the Museum that grew out of Teylers former home through a series of extensions, the first being the large oval room that was opened in 1784.

The first director of the Museum, Martinus van Marum, built up extensive collections of fossils, minerals, scientific instruments and books. Among his acquisitions was the world's largest electrical machine. These collections were displayed in the Museum along with works of art. Visitors could also attend scientific demonstrations. Later curators of the several cabinets expanded the collections, organized popular lectures, and continued the research tradition. When Hendrik Lorentz was appointed director of research in 1912 part of the Museum was even changed into a modern physical laboratory. It was only after World War II that the role of the Museum was completely reduced to that of public display.

This project aims to analyze the changing nature and role of this unique institution in the 19th century.

Contact: Martin Weiss,

C.J. Temminck (1778-1858): early 19th century Zoology at the Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie

Coenraad Jacob Temminck (1778-1858) was the co-founder and first director of the Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie (the National Museum of Natural History Naturalis) in Leiden, The Netherlands. Although he was a renowned ornithologist and mammalogist, his work and contributions to the advance of natural history have never been studied nor put in the context of pre-Darwinian natural history. During the first half of the 19th century, scientists debated heatedly about important theoretical and philosophical issues. Those devoted to natural history were confronted with quite thorny questions: Is there a natural system to classify animals? Why are species distributed on earth as they are? Are species fixed or can they change into other species? Where is the fine line that separates species from variations? Pre-Darwinian naturalists were struggling to solve these issues and some of them did it in a very creative manner. This research aims to determine the focus of Temminck's scientific activity at the RMNH and to elucidate which, if any, role did Temminck play in answering all these questions.

This project is being carried out with the support of NCB Naturalis and the Institute for History and Foundations of Science (Utrecht University).

Contact: Eulàlia Gassó Miracle,

Dutch Science and the Metric System

The Metric Convention of 1875 and the International Bureau of Weights and Measures The 1875 treaty and its principal outcome, the foundation of an international agency for weights and measures, testify to the 19th century rise of international cooperation in science. At a closer look, however, matters become more complicated. The foundation of the bureau was heavily contested, and its operation was initially hampered by obstructive forces. Moreover, some states, The Netherlands being one of them, bypassed the bureau and ordered copies of the old French standards, in particular the Metre des Archives, rather than the new international standards. The Dutch stance was not only frowned upon abroad, it also gave rise to internal controversies.

Contact: Frans van Lunteren,

Faculty active in this area

van Lunteren, van Delft