One way to become a top scientist…

… is to have a top scientist spot your talent and encourage you, however humble your status may be then.

Wikipedia has a terse entry about Dirk Rembrandtsz (with “sz” at the end), presented as a “seventeenth-century Dutch cartographer, mathematician, surveyor, astronomer, teacher and [religious dignitary]” with “more than thirty scientific publications to his name” and various inventions. Seems just like another early scientific career, but digging a bit deeper reveals that the story goes beyond the ordinary.

The reason I looked up Rembrandtsz is that I ran into the following mention in a seminal book about Descartes, by Geneviève Rodis-Lewis (Calmann-Lévy, 1995). I did not know about Rodis-Lewis herself even though I now realize she was an impressive personality with a remarkable if difficult career (there is an entry about her in French Wikipedia). Here is the relevant extract from her book (pages 255-256), part of the story of Descartes’s years in the Netherlands. The translation is mine, as well as comments in brackets.

During the last years of his life in the Netherlands, Descartes had several opportunities to show [his] interest in people of very modest means. Baillet [Descartes’s first biographer, in the 17-th century] did not give the exact date of the first visit of a “peasant from Holland”, a “shoemaker” by trade, who was studying mathematics in books in vulgar language. [That is to say, not in Latin, presumably in Dutch or French.] When he came for the first time to Egmond [Descartes’s residence] and asked to see Descartes, the servants sent him away. Dirk Rembrandtsz “came back two or three months later”, insisting on being brought in. “His external appearance did nothing to help him get a better reception than before.” Descartes was told, however, of the return of this “annoying beggar” who obviously “wanted to talk philosophy with the purpose of getting some alms”. “Descartes sent him some money, which he refused, saying that he hoped that a third journey would be more productive than the first two.” When Descartes heard about this answer, he gave orders to receive him. “Rembrandtsz came back a few months later” and Descartes was able to appreciate “his skill and merit”. He helped him overcome difficulties and shared his method with him. “He added him to the circle of his friends.” Rembrandtsz “became, through studying with Descartes, one of the premier astronomers of this century”.

I find this story moving. The passionate, stubborn autodidact, determined to reach the highest steps in science in spite of miserable circumstances. The rejection by the servants, from instinctive class-based prejudices. The great scientist’s ability to overcome such prejudice and recognize a kindred, noble spirit and his devotion to the pursuit of knowledge. His generosity, his openness, his availability in spite of the many demands on his time. His encouragement to a young, unknown disciple. The numerous encounters which begin as lessons from a master and evolve towards a relationship of peers. And the later success of the aspiring scientist.

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  1. finnianr says:

    It’s great to read accounts like this. It reminds me of another great historical figure who was generous to his peers, namely Franz Lizst, who was famous for his philanthropy. He was a friend, musical promoter and benefactor to many composers of his time, including Frédéric Chopin, Charles-Valentin Alkan, Richard Wagner, Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann, Camille Saint-Saëns, Edvard Grieg, Ole Bull, Joachim Raff, Mikhail Glinka, and Alexander Borodin.

    I would like to find a good biography of him.

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