Newton's international breakthrough achieved through Leiden

The Boerhaave Salon is entering its second season. The central theme for the period up to the summer vacation is: 'The Scientific Revolution in the Netherlands.' In a course of six lectures, prominent Dutch historians of science explain how they view particular historical figures from the stirring period between 1550 and 1750.

Sir Isaac Newton


The Boerhaave Salon is a collaboration between the University and the Boerhaave Museum. As a product of this partnership a lecture will be held in the musuem every month, the last one taking place in July. The Boerhaave Salon aims at a public of historians of science and interested non-academics. The lecture series was inspired by the exhibition on Newton Mania that can be seen until 12 September in the Boerhaave Museum. ‘The Scientific Revolution in the Netherlands' opens on 17 February. 

A single air pump from the workplace of Jan van Musschenbroek. Collection: Boerhaave Museum.

Religion and science

‘The lecture series is based on the enormous transformation that the image of the Scientific Revolution has undergone in historiography in recent times,' Dirk van Delft, Professor of Material Heritage of the Natural Sciences and Director of the Museum, explains. 'The traditional, internally-oriented approach focusing on the development of ideas, has been replaced by an approach that pays more attention to cultural, religious, political and social factors and contexts.' Eric Jorink of the Huygens Institute kicks off the series on Wednesday 17 February, lecturing on the subject of the paradoxal relationship between religion and science. Frans van Lunteren, Professor of the History of Science, provides the commentary for the lectures.

A centrifuge from the workplace of Jan van Musschenbroek. Collection: Boerhaave Museum.

Leiden Physics Room

The Newton Mania exhibition shows that the spread of Newton's ideas, set out in his famous Principia dating from 1687, owes much of its original success to Leiden. Van Delft: ‘After paying a visit to Newton, Leiden professor Jacob Willem ’s Gravesande became ethusiastic about his laws, gave a lecture on the subject and wrote a textbook with experiments to demonstrate Newton's principles. 's Gravezande had the necessary equipment, such as a vacuum pump, a centrifuge, levers, etc., made by instrument-maker Jan van Musschenbroek, who had his workplace on the Rapenburg, diagonally opposite the Academy Building. All this apparatus together makes up the Leiden Physics Room, one of the core collections of the Boerhaave Museum. ‘s Gravesande's textbook became very successful and was translated into many languages, including English. Newton's international breakthrough was achieved through Leiden.'  

A lever with arms of different lengths, from Jan van Musschenbroek's workplace. Collection: Boerhaave Museum.


In the lecture series, attention is also paid to another of Newton's supporters: Herman Boerhaave, one of the best-known of Leiden's professors. Boerhaave, a gifted lecturer acclaimed as the 'teacher of all Europe', was the most famous medical scholar of his time. His fame spread even as far as China. ‘Boerhaave's medical chemistry will be a key theme of my lecture,' comments postdoc Rina Knoeff. Knoeff obtained her doctorate at the University of Cambridge based on her dissertation Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738): Calvinist Chemist and Physician. ‘I focus on his interest in alchemy, his concept of the working of invisible forces in nature and particularly his Calvinism that pervades his work. If we don't pay attention to the ‘obscure’ aspects of such scholars as Boerhaave, we cannot really understand the Scientific Revolution.'  

Science of History Symposium

As well as the lecture series, the Boerhaave Museum, the Pallas Institute (Leiden University) and the Huygens Institute (KNAW) are together organising an international Science of History conference 21 and 23 April, on the theme of Newton and the Netherlands. This conference, that focuses on the remarkably positive reception of Newton's ideas in the Netherlands in the 1800s, starts with a public lecture by British historian Lisa Jardine (author of Going Dutch). The lecture is being organised jointly by Studium Generale and will take place in the Kamerlingh Onnes building.

Programmr for ‘The Scientific Revolution in the Netherlands’

Programme (pdf)

Wednesday 17 February
Title: Geloof en wetenschap in de gouden eeuw
Speaker: Eric Jorink, Huygens Institute, KNAW

Wednesday 17 March
Title: Mores Geometrici. Wiskundigen in de 17de Eeuw
Speaker: Fokko Jan Dijksterhuis, University of Twente

Thursday 15 April
Title: Descartes in Nederland
Speaker: Klaas van Berkel, University of Groningen

Wednesday 12 May
Title: Revolutionaire Heelmeester? Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738) over God, chemie en geneeskunde
Speaker: Rina Knoeff, Leiden University 

Wednesday 9 June
Title: De liefhebber en de Wetenschappelijke Revolutie: Blinde vlek of randverschijnsel?
Speaker: Huib Zuidervaart, Huygens Institute (KNAW)

Wednesday 7 July
Title: Newton en het verval van de Nederlandse wetenschap
Speaker: Rienk Vermij, University of Oklahoma


(9 February 2010)

Last Modified: 11-02-2010