Book Review: Kepler’s Witch by James A. Connor

Posted On January 23, 2009

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This is a really wonderful book! Most of you areprobably familiar with the outline of Kepler's astronomical genius he worked with Tycho Brahe and used Tycho's observations to make sense of the motions of planets. (Kepler was the first fellow to recognize that their orbits were ellipses  not circular orbits modulated by circular epicycles), he corresponded with Galileo and with him endorsed the Copernican concept of a heliocentric solar system. This book is designed to put flesh on those dry bones. It provides the "life and times" story of a remarkable man who lived, strived, and struggled in troubled times. Kepler's astronomy is only a backdrop to the tale: there is very little detail about his scientific work. Instead, the author transports you into an alien culture: that of 17th century Europe. The worldview and social organization of Kepler's time is so different from ours, that it is indeed a journey to another world to share his life. He practiced both astronomy and astrology, but had an enlightened concept of the latter  the stars may influence a person's personality and predilections, but they don't enable the astrologer to foretell specific events. He had emperors and generals as patrons, but often struggled to support his family. It was one thing to be granted a salary by the ruler, but quite another thing to actually collect the money from the bureaucracy! He was a multi-dimensional man. Kepler the astronomer was a deep and innovative thinker, an almost-modern scientist. Kepler the Christian was steadfast in his commitment to his Savior, and to his Lutheran church, yet he maintained strong friendships with Catholics (especially the Jesuits). The scandals and dangers that he faced by holding such friendships, in his time, were roughly analogous to what one of us would face if we had friends in both the US Army and Al-Qeada. At various times, both sides suspected him of treachery.

He was no ivory-tower recluse. He became an independent businessman when he determined that it was more cost-effective to own a printing press than to pay a printer to set up and sell his manuscripts. He was a clever marketeer: there wasn't a large popular market for astronomical books, but there were quite a few wealthy people who would pay premium prices for special books dedicated to them by the author  and he ran off plenty of dedicated volumes to subsidize the publication and distribution of his scientific works. His family life touched on all the joy and sorrow that his times could offer complex relationships with his parents, happy courtships (quite a few of those!), marriages that were at various times exhilarating, frustrating, insensitive, and tragic culminating in the drawn-out trial of his mother on charges of witchcraft. The detailed explanation of the procedures, rules of evidence, and background of this trial is one of the book's most remarkable features.

You can find this book in the OCA Library. It might not teach you very much astronomy, but it will take you on a remarkable journey into the turbulent world that gave birth to modern science.

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