Richard De Grijs – China

Richard De Grijs is a professional scientist (astrophysicist). He holds a permanent job as full professor at Peking University (Beijing, China). In addition to his scientific research and teaching roles, he has a broad scientific, scholarly, and cultural interests. This has prompted me to seek out opportunities to engage in a number of multidisciplinary projects (involving science and humanities topics). This is exemplified, for instance, by:

  •  His successful proposal to make a documentary series on “The human face of Chinese astronomy: Past, present and future”. He secured seed funding of CNY 300,000 (approximately 30% of the total cost) from the National Natural Science Foundation of China.
  • He initiated a collaboration among scientists and scholars in China (himself and colleagues at both the Institute for the History of the Natural Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the China University of Political Science and Law), the UK (at the Confucius Institute of Bangor University, Wales), and Russia (at Volgograd State Pedagogical University) to explore scientific correspondence and exchanges along the Silk Road through depictions in art of scientific instruments and methods. Through this latter collaboration, he became interested in exploring the history of science, with emphasis on making links between West and East. As a European (Dutch) scholar based in China, he is in a unique position to link both cultures and offer novel insights and perspectives.
  • He was recently invited as a keynote speaker at an international conference on the history of cartography (November 2014), based on his initial exploration of a recently released database of 20,000 scholarly letters by 17th Century intellectuals and scholars from the “Dutch Republic”. This, in turn, led to the book project described below.


Historical accounts of efforts to assist in the determination of longitude at sea often focus (almost exclusively) on John Harrison’s role in 18th Century Britain, which eventually led to him being awarded the British Government’s Longitude Prize in 1776. In this context, it is particularly interesting to note that the Dutch Huygens ING institute recently launched a freely accessible, online, virtual research environment, ePistolarium (, under the umbrella of the “Circulation of Knowledge and Learned Practices in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Republic” (CKCC) project. The ePistolarium data base contains the full text and metadata of some 20,000 “geleerdenbrieven” (scholarly letters) received and sent by nine 17th Century leading intellectuals who were based in the Dutch Republic during some or all of their life, including the French philosopher René Descartes and the father-and-son team Constantijn and Christiaan Huygens (the scientist).

Richard’s initial perusal of this vast data base showed him that during the century prior to Harrison’s seminal achievement a significant amount of effort was spent on solving the problem of the determination of longitude at sea. This was a crucial step in our pursuit of accurate navigation around the world, yet this story is largely unknown. Therefore, he proposed to write a generally accessible yet scholarly monograph focusing on these 17th Century developments, titled “Longitude at Sea: Navigation in the 17th Century”. He was approached by a publisher, the Institute of Physics Publishing (IOPP), to develop this idea into a book proposal. Following international peer review of his proposal, he has since been offered a contract to write a book (signed July 2015) in their newly established IOPP/American Astronomical Society e-book series, with a tentative deadline of 31 December 2017. He is currently in the process of doing the background research. During his time at Stiwdio Maelor, he will start drafting the book’s main chapters.