Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Kepler's Legacy

Early yesterday morning, I started reading John Banville's Kepler. It is a classically intense piece of biographical fiction which aims a heated spotlight on the life and times of Johannes Kepler, astrologer and mathematician, and his painful intellectual relationships with Nicolaus Copernicus (dead but whose ideas act like goads to Kepler) and Tycho Brahe (alive, but not for long).

While still in the first few pages, I glanced idly across the internet and discovered that, by some quirk of time and fate, May 23 was the day chosen by the Episcopalian church to commemorate the lives of Kepler and Copernicus. A skeptic would say that this was one of the many inevitable coincidences of life, only remembered because it was so randomly exact.

To me, it was a sign to think a little deeper about what I was reading. Kepler was a Lutheran holdout in a time of painful religious and political change. Obsessed with the idea of divine mathematics, he routinely cast horoscopes and made predictions that came out right again and again. He ardently believed in the music of the spheres; he claimed to hear it every now and then.

It was his struggle with Tycho Brahe's data on the orbit of Mars that brought him to the realisation that the area swept out by a body in orbit remained the same at any distance for the same period of time. Nearly a century later, Newton was able to build on Kepler and show that this was a consequence of gravitational behaviour.

I have suddenly discovered that I am in possession of Banville's Doctor Copernicus and The Newton Letter as well. What wonderful distractions! I cannot wait to move out from under the burden of educational globalisation and back into the history of science. And somewhere between those points, I hope to enjoy tracing out that arc of my own orbit.

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