Kepler, looked at again

How am I supposed to think about my heroes? Hero: Johannes Kepler. Developer of the three laws of planetary motion. And even more important, discoverer of the real scientific method.


Been interested in him ever since I did a paper in History of Math class about the development of methods of solutions for Kepler’s Equation: Kepler's Equation, from his book, Astronomia Nova. He was not a fun guy, being overly religious, moody, cranky, and a really boring teacher. Balancing that out, however, was the fact that he was the best mathematician alive at the time. A close second was a guy with the (to my American ears) odd name of Tycho Brahe, who was otherwise Kepler’s opposite: incredibly rich, popular, big and strong and handsome, and the possessor of, among many other things, a nose made of gold and a pet dwarf. No, not a pet dwarf what, a pet dwarf. You could get away with that in the 1500’s if you had a lot of money. The nose of gold was the result of a fight he got into in his college days with a fellow student over who was better at math. The other student bit Tycho’s nose clean off.

When he wasn’t partying heartily, he was the greatest observational astronomer since the Babylonians. He was methodical enough to keep 40 years’ worth of his own observations of the movement of the planets, all of them. Like all good party boys, he partied until he died. Really. They said his bladder burst because he was too busy stuffing his face with food and wine to go pee.

Kepler needed Brahe’s data to do any theorizing, and Brahe needed Kepler to turn his raw data into something other than a pile of paper and ink. Brahe invited Kepler to be a guest at his place, which Kepler did, in order to be near the data. But Brahe was jealous of Kepler’s genius, and would only give him small dribbles of information. Kepler needed the whole lot.

Suddenly, Tycho, in mid-party, dies. Doctors say he was too busy stuffing his face at the feast the night before to go pee, so his bladder burst. Odd thing to happen to a big, strong guy like Tycho who was only in his fifties, and extremely healthy with no medical problems aside, of course, from suddenly being dead.

Kepler sheds a tear or two, one presumes. Then, he grabs all Tycho’s data, leaves the Brahe household in a great hurry, and goes on to use Brahe’s data to revolutionize the world of science.

Now this new book comes along, just now: Heavenly Intrigue. Which is what has got me pondering my hero. What it says, is that Kepler poisoned Brahe with mercury for the data, and offers forensic proof.

Should I care that my hero was quite likely a murderer? I guess I should, but I can’t yet work up the indignation. Was the huge step forward for science that Kepler’s theories represented worth a human life? A big chunk of me says “Yes.” The part of me that says “Murder is wrong” is feeling rather weak in this instance. Righteous indignation is not forthcoming. Should it be?

Heroes should be allowed to be human, but should they be allowed to be murderers?

2 thoughts on “Kepler, looked at again

  1. O.K. I have thought you quite intelligent since I fist visited, but girl, you done sealed the deal with this post. A paper in History of Math on development and solutions?


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