Gravesande, Willem Jacob

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`s Gravesande, Willem Jacob (1688-1742): Dutch Scientist.

‘s Gravesande studied law at the University of Leiden, where he graduated on a doctoral dissertation on the crime of suicide. He practiced law in The Hague where he became one of the founders of the Journal Littéraire de la Haye (1713-1737). Later, when he was secretary to the Dutch embassy in London, he developed close ties with the English learned society. In 1715, `s Gravesande was elected into the Royal Society where became acquainted with Newton, John Desaguliers (1683-1744) and John Keill (1671-1721). In 1717 he became a professor of mathematics and astronomy at the University of Leiden.

‘s Gravesande was a strong advocate of Newtonian science and of the experimental method. Influenced by the experimental verificationism of Keill and Desaguliers, he performed experiments during his lectures to demonstrate scientific principles. The resulting textbook, Mathematical Elements of Physics (1720), established his scientific reputation. The main contribution of this book, which leaned heavily on Newton’s Opticks and the Principia, lies in its discussion of the scientific method. Opposing the hypothetical deductive method of the Cartesians, `s Gravesande stressed that scientific claims must be justified by direct observation or experiment. This insistence on scientific method also caused `s Gravesande’s disagreement with the Newtonians in the vis viva (mv2) controversy. Carefully conducted experiments showed him that Leibniz was right in his claim that the vis viva of the totality of bodies remains constant.

Further Reading:

E. G. Ruestow, Physics at 17th and 18th Century Leiden: Philosophy and the New Science in the University, 1973.

Cornelis de Waal

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis