Dec 102018

Today is the birthday (1588) of Isaac Beeckman, a Dutch natural philosopher who is rarely spoken of today, but in his time was well respected, and was a leading figure in the development of many modern scientific theories, especially atomism.

Beeckman was born in Middelburg, Zeeland, to a strong Calvinistic family, which had fled from the Spanish-controlled Southern Netherlands a few years before. He had his early education in his home town and went on to study theology, literature and mathematics in Leiden. Upon his return to Middelburg he could not find a position as a minister, due to his father’s clashes with the local church, and decided to follow his father in the candle-making business, setting up his own company in Zierikzee. While trying to improve on the candle making process, he also involved himself in other projects, like creating water conduits and doing meteorological observations. In 1616 he sold the business to his apprentice and went to study medicine in Caen, where he graduated in 1618. On his return, he became an assistant rector in Utrecht. On April 1620 he married Cateline de Cerf, whom he knew from Middelburg, and with whom he would have seven children. From 1620 to 1627 he taught at the Latin school in Rotterdam, where he founded a “Collegium Mechanicum”, or Technical College. From 1627 until his death at the age of 48 he was rector of the Latin school in Dordrecht.

Rene Descartes and Isaac Beeckman.

Beeckman’s most influential teachers in Leiden probably were Snellius and Simon Stevin. He himself was a teacher to Johan de Witt and a teacher and friend of René Descartes. Beeckman had met the young Descartes in November 1618 in Breda, where Beeckman then lived and Descartes was then garrisoned as a soldier. It is said that they met when both were looking at a placard that was set up in the Breda marketplace, detailing a mathematical problem to be solved. Descartes asked Beeckman to translate the problem from Dutch to French. In their following meetings Beeckman interested Descartes in his corpuscularian approach to mechanical theory, and convinced him to devote his studies to a mathematical approach to nature. In 1619, Descartes dedicated one of his first tractati to him, the Compendium Musicae. When Descartes returned to the Dutch Republic in the autumn of 1628, Beeckman also introduced him to many of Galileo’s ideas. In 1629 they fell out over a dispute concerning whether Beeckman had helped Descartes with some of his mathematical discoveries. In October 1630, Descartes wrote a long and harshly abusive letter, apparently meant to crush Beeckman psychologically, in which he declared himself never to have been influenced by Beeckman. Despite a few other such fallings-outs, they remained in contact until Beeckman’s death in 1637.

Beeckman did not publish his ideas, but he had influenced many scientists of his time. Since the beginning of his studies he did keep an extensive journal, from which his brother published some of his observations in 1644. However, this went basically unnoticed. The scope of Beeckman’s ideas did not come to light until the science historian Cornelis de Waard rediscovered the Journaal in 1905, and published it in volumes between 1939 and 1953.

The following are key points in the Journaal:

Beeckman developed, independently of Sebastian Basso, the concept that matter is composed of atoms.

Beeckman is one of the first people to describe inertia correctly, although he also assumed that a constant circular velocity is conserved.

Beeckman showed that the fundamental frequency of a vibrating string is proportional to the reciprocal of the length of the string.

In the analysis of the functioning of a pump he theorized correctly that air pressure is the cause and not the then popular theory of horror vacui (“nature abhors a vacuum”

In his time, he was considered to be one of the most educated men in Europe. For example, he had deeply impressed French polymath Marin Mersenne, despite their opposing religious views, as well as astronomer and mathematician, Pierre Gassendi, who apparently had been introduced by Beeckman to the philosophy of Epicurus and atomism. Gassendi stated in a 1629 letter that Beeckman was the greatest philosopher he had ever met.

Here is a 16th century Dutch recipe for gooseberry omelet taken from Seer excellenten gheexperimenteerden nieuwen Coc-boeck (The very excellent and tried new cookbook) by Karel Baten (Carolus Battus) published in 1593:

Om een tasey van stekelbesyen te backen.
Neempt versche boter ende smeltse in een panne. Doeter dan soo vele stekelbesyen in datse bycans twee vyngeren hooch liggen ende laetse met de boter een weynich sieden tot datse maer recht hen coleur verloren hebben. Clopt dan wel cleyn 7, 8 ofte 9 eyeren met wat gengeber ende wat rooswaters. Gietet tsamen over de besyen ende latet so over een coolvyer backen dat niet en brande. Als de tasey genoech gebacken is, so laetse properlick uut de panne in de schotel rijsen datse niet en breke. Dan stroyter suycker ende caneel op ende dientse.

To bake an omelette of gooseberries.
Take fresh butter and melt it in a pan. Add gooseberries so that they are almost two fingers high and let them simmer in the butter until they have lost their color. Then beat 7, 8 or 9 eggs with a little ginger and rosewater. Pour this mixture over the gooseberries, and let it bake over a coal fire without burning. When the omelet is done, let it glide from the pan on to a dish without breaking. Then sprinkle sugar and cinnamon on it and serve.

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