Today, the differences between astronomy and astrology are easily defined. To the ancient astronomer/astrologer, Saturn influenced human characteristics, notably those of mistrust, the bringer of death and the fall of kings. We now know that the planet Saturn is a giant globe of hydrogen and helium gas. His name was Johannes Kepler. It was the lonely work of one man who brought astronomy out of this mysterium dark age and forged the way for modern science upon which our current civilisation depends.
Johannes Kepler was born in Germany in 1571. He lived in a time of great oppression of the human spirit when the heavens where inhabited by angels and demons and the Sun and the planets moved round the Earth in crystal spheres rotated by the Hand of God.
It was a time of religious dogmatism where science inhabited a pale shadow of half-truths and falsehoods where the inaccuracies of the ancients were considered holy and more reliable than current findings made with technology unavailable to the people of a millennium or two previous.
Kepler spent his childhood in the protestant seminary school in Maulbronn to be educated for the clergy. The young Kepler’s independence quickly isolated him from the other boys. He was intelligent and he knew it but his thoughts often drifted to his imagined unworthiness in the eyes of God and he despaired of ever obtaining salvation.
But God meant more to Kepler than simply punishment; he was the creative power of the universe and Kepler’s curiosity became greater than his fear. He wanted to know the mind of God.
When Kepler left Maulbronn in 1589 for university, his genius was at last recognised and leaving the clergy behind he moved to Graz in Austria to teach mathematics. Although a brilliant thinker and writer he was a disaster as a teacher. He mumbled, he digressed and at times was completely incomprehensible.
One summer’s afternoon as his students waited restlessly for the end of the day he made a discovery that would change the course of the rest of his life and the future of astronomy.
There were only six planets known in Kepler’s time; Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Kepler had often asked himself why. Why only six? Why not twenty or a thousand? And why did they have the spacings that Copernicus had deduced? Kepler’s
thoughts went back to the five regular solids of Pythagoras of which each solid had regular polygons as faces. There were five and there could only be five from a simple mathematical proof.
Kepler thought planets and the solids had to be connected. He felt he had found the invisible supports for the spheres of the planets.
But no matter how hard he tried he could not make the solids and the orbits agree. He couldn’t make it work and yet he couldn’t abandon it. Finally he thought that the experimental data he had must be in error.
There was only one man who had access to more reliable data and that was Tyco Brahe, a Danish nobleman who had accepted the post of Imperial Mathematician in the court of the Roman Emperor. Tyco had written to Kepler, inviting him to join him in his work. He knew that he was an experimentalist and needed a theoretician like Kepler to work with him.
Graz was feeling the first tremors of the Thirty Years War. The local Catholic Archduke had vowed to make ‘a desert of the country than rule over heretics’. Anyone not professing the Roman Catholic faith were fined and exiled on pain of death. Kepler chose exile and began the long journey with his wife and daughter to join Tyco.
Tyco Brahe was a flamboyant figure with a gold nose replacing the original which had been lost in a student duel over who was the superior mathematician. Tyco was extremely rich and indulged himself and his entourage of assistants, distant relatives and assorted hangers on, in endless banquets. Tyco needed Kepler, but he was not going to hand over thirty years of painstaking observational data, made with the naked eye, to a potential rival. Kepler detested the constant revelry and longed to work with Tyco as a partner. They frequently quarreled and it was not until Tyco’s death bed, from his overindulgence in food and wine, that he finally handed over his work to Kepler. ‘Let me not seem to have lived in vain’ he said, and he didn’t. Kepler and Tyco’s collaboration show us that science is that pure combination of dedicated observation and imaginative theory.
So Kepler took Tyco’s data and attempted to resolve the orbit of Mars, which Tyco had said was the most difficult. He fitted a circular orbit of Mars around the sun which agreed with ten of Tyco’s observations within eight minutes of arc. A minute is a very small unit to measure, especially without a telescope.
Kepler could not ignore this error and had to abandon the circular orbit. He played with a variety of ovals and spirals until he was let with what he called, ‘a single cart-full of dung’.
Kepler was the first since Antiquity to suggest that the planets were actual places, like the Earth, made from the imperfect stuff of rocks, liquids and gasses. If the planets themselves were not ‘heavenly lights’, perfect divine beings, perhaps their movements were not perfect too. Such reasoning was essential for Kepler to abandon the idea of the planets moving in the perfect form of a circle.
The concept that elements of the heavens were not perfect went against everything Kepler had come to believe. In fact, he initially rejected the right answer that he had found. Finally he calculated the form of the orbits that conformed to all Tyco’s data: it was the form of the ellipse.
Kepler had found his first law, which is this: A planet moves in an ellipse, with the sun at one focus.
From this he discovered his second law: A planet sweeps out equal areas in equal times.
It was a few years later that his third law of planetary motion was finalised as: The square of the period of a planet is proportional to the cube of the average distance from the sun.
As Kepler was working on his third law, the Thirty Years War had begun during the course of which he would lose his wife and son.
The war was an exploitation of religious fanaticism by those hungry for land and power. Millions of lives were shattered and among the many scapegoats were old women, living alone. Three women were tortured and killed as witches every year in Kepler’s home town. One night his mother was kidnapped in a laundry basket. It took Kepler six years to prove her innocence.
The main piece of evidence against his mother came from one of Kepler’s books. It was probably the first work of science fiction called the Sommnium (the dream), in which he imagined a journey to the moon and to stand on its solid surface, looking up to see
the Earth slowly rotating in the sky.
Kepler imagined correctly the marks on the moon to be craters and mountains and he envisaged the people that might live there. The book was semi-autobiographical; the hero visits Tyco Brahe and has a mother who’s spells are used to transport him to the moon. Kepler knew however that one day men would build ‘celestial ships with sails adapted to the winds of heaven’ navigated by men ‘who would not fear the vastness’ of space.
Kepler wrote his own epitaph: ‘I measured the skies, now the shadows I measure. Sky-bound was the mind, Earth-bound the body rests.’
It is sad that the man who found harmony in the heavens found only discord on Earth. The Thirty Years War obliterated his grave.
Kepler was at heart a true scientist. Although he could never really abandon his Platonic Solids, he preferred the cold, harsh truth rather than his own dearest held illusions.
By looking for an answer to a question, he had come to a conclusion that either the data or his theory was wrong. By testing and checking accurate data he had found that his belief in his earlier theories were wrong and was strong enough to follow the truth to discover a greater reality.
The truth stretched his imagination in a way that falsehoods can’t and in doing so he imagined planets and places and a future for the human race.
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