In the ‘All in the family’ series we spoke to several families who shared a connection with TU Delft. The TU Delft line never went as far back as in the Van Heel family.
Grandpa Huib and grandson Floris van Heel. (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

In the ‘All in the family’ series we spoke to several families who shared a connection with TU Delft. The TU Delft line never went as far back as in the Van Heel family.

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His great great grandmother studied there for a short while; his great grandfather’s career revolved around it; his grandfather Huib studied and taught there; and his father Bas’s roots lie there. Grandson Floris is the fifth generation of Van Heels at TU Delft.

Obtaining a doctorate at -273 degrees
Former TU Delft professor Huib van Heel began the family story with “A long time ago my grandfather started studying mechanical engineering. But he never finished it. He left for the Dutch East Indies and founded Insulinde, a coconut oil factory, on Java. My father, Bram van Heel, was born there in 1899. He always said proudly that ‘he was born in Napoleon’s century’.”

Upon reaching adulthood, Bram van Heel returned to the Netherlands to study physics. At Leiden University he became inspired by two Nobel Prize winners: Hendrik Lorentz and Heike Kamerlingh Onnes. “As a young visitor to the Sterrenwacht (the observatory in Leiden, eds.) he quickly developed a keen interest in astronomy and this is what sparked his interest in optics. However, his promotor Kamerlingh Onnes said ‘Van Heel, if you want to obtain your doctorate with me, you will have to do it at -273 degrees’.” Thus, he was then tasked to talk about how glass behaves under extreme temperatures.”

‘But then the war broke out’

While doing his doctorate, Bram van Heel met his wife. He even dedicated his doctoral research to ‘my future wife’. They left for Delft together where he started working as an assistant at TU Delft. They had two sons, Bram and Huib. “My father enjoyed being around students and teaching,” says Grandfather Huib. “He became a lector in 1938 and his professorship should have followed soon after. But then the war broke out.”

Introduction to optics
In 1947, just after the war, Bram van Heel was indeed appointed as Professor of Optics. It was a brand new department and became a professional peer group where Bram van Heel and many of his students turned complex theories into practical, usable methods which were greedily adopted by industry. One of his post war successes was to develop a method of alignment that made the repair of damaged bridges more efficient and faster. He was also involved in the founding of two companies – Optische Industrie ‘De Oude Delft’ and Nonius – and wrote a textbook called ‘Inleiding in de optica’ (introduction to optics) that was one of the standard textbooks in this field for years.  Grandfather Huib continues. “He started writing it during the war. Optics at the time was not yet a professional field so it was the first general introduction to the field. It was a pioneering work.”

Physics menu
Grandfather Huib rummages in the briefcase behind him. He comes up with a menu of dishes that are described as though they were physics statements. “When the first physics lab was opened at TU Delft in 1930, there was a dinner for all the professors. My father enjoyed that time. He loved teaching and was very popular among the students. He loved explaining things and used his whole body and voice to keep people interested and listening.”

Bram van Heel later became Vice Rector. While he was honoured with the position, he missed teaching. “He very much looked forward to retiring,” remembers Grandfather Huib, “because when you reached 65 years old you could spend all your time doing things in your field. That he passed away in 1966 at 67 years old was a very bitter pill. He really looked forward to helping brilliant students obtain their doctorates.”

People learn to think here
Born in 1931, Huib van Heel saw much of his father’s career close up. But that did not influence his choice of subject. “I wanted to study physics, but preferably not where my father was teaching. I looked into studying in Paris, but that was difficult.” Grandson Floris shakes his head laughing. “Because you don’t speak French, Grandpa.”

So it was TU Delft and Grandfather Huib has plenty of memories of his time there. Take the first two hours on a Thursday, for example, when the amanuensis went to the abattoir to get a bull’s eye from the market. His father then cut the eye into pieces so that the students in his optics lecture could examine it closely. “I must admit that I never saw it myself as I was usually quite busy at the Phoenix club,” he grins.

One thing struck him before he started studying. It was the slogan used to promote physics. “Mechanical engineering had ‘We build machines’, civil engineering ‘We build dikes’, but physics had ‘People learn to think here’. I believe this to this day. You may not use your physics knowledge much in your everyday life, but you do learn to solve problems during your course. So you see a lot of physicists going into industry.”

‘It was a progressive subject at the time’

He did so as well, but he left his industry career and returned to TU Delft when some mechanical engineers asked him and his friend, Leo Jansen, to teach about the environment. This became Environmental Engineering. In the beginning he had 30 students in his class, but the group quickly grew. “It was a progressive subject at the time. It looked at circularity and recycling. The idea that if you build something, you must know what you will do with it when you can’t repair it anymore was completely new at the time.”

Happy if people understand it
While we talk, it became clear that Floris’ love for physics was in his DNA. His father, Bas van Heel, also studied physics at TU Delft. “My grandfather even had to go through the trials of getting him accommodation in a student house as my father was abroad,” says Floris. “After graduating, he too went into industry. As a child I thought that that was strange. I knew what physics was, but didn’t understand how he used it in his work. He then explained that he gave advice and tried to find out why things were as they were. He has worked as a consultant now for over 20 years and he too, a skilled explainer, has given some lectures.”

The apple does not fall far from the tree apparently. Grandson Floris wants to teach later too. “I want to be a secondary school teacher. I want to help and make others happy. I worked as a youth leader in the scouts for three years and gave tutoring classes at secondary school. It makes me really happy if people finally understand something.”

That said, Floris is forging a different path than his father and grandfather. He is taking not one, but two courses. “I was already saying that I wanted to study physics before I even had a single physics lesson at school. I was interested in how things move, but I didn’t like the NEMO Science Museum as it never explains exactly how things work. At secondary school I discovered that I also really enjoyed mathematics and was good at it. Then I heard that I could do both here and I applied immediately. Maybe it was naive of me, but the only university open days I went to were TU Delft and Leiden University. The fact that both my father and grandfather studied at TU Delft made the decision easier.”

Third generation at the student club
Even though his grandfather and father were members of the Delfts Studenten Corps, Floris’ priorities currently lie elsewhere. “I want to obtain the binding recommendation on continuation of studies first. But next year I do want become a member.”

Grandfather Huib turns towards his grandson, somewhat surprised. “That, so clearly put, is new to me. I am very pleased to hear it,” he said, smiling from ear to ear.