Johannes Kepler (27 December 1571 – 15 November 1630) was a German astronomer, mathematician, and astrologer. He is a key figure in the 17th-century scientific revolution, best known for his laws of planetary motion, and his books Astronomia nova, Harmonices Mundi, and Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae. These works also provided one of the foundations for Newton’s theory of universal gravitation.
Kepler was a mathematics teacher at a seminary school in Graz, where he became an associate of Prince Hans Ulrich von Eggenberg. Later he became an assistant to the astronomer Tycho Brahe in Prague, and eventually the imperial mathematician to Emperor Rudolf II and his two successors Matthias and Ferdinand II. He also taught mathematics in Linz, and was an adviser to General Wallenstein. Additionally, he did fundamental work in the field of optics, invented an improved version of the refracting (or Keplerian) telescope, and was mentioned in the telescopic discoveries of his contemporary Galileo Galilei. He was a corresponding member of the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome.
Kepler lived in an era when there was no clear distinction between astronomy and astrology, but there was a strong division between astronomy (a branch of mathematics within the liberal arts) and physics (a branch of natural philosophy). Kepler also incorporated religious arguments and reasoning into his work, motivated by the religious conviction and belief that God had created the world according to an intelligible plan that is accessible through the natural light of reason. Kepler described his new astronomy as “celestial physics”, as “an excursion into Aristotle’s Metaphysics”, and as “a supplement to Aristotle’s On the Heavens”, transforming the ancient tradition of physical cosmology by treating astronomy as part of a universal mathematical physics.
Kepler was born on 27 December, the feast day of St John the Evangelist, 1571, in the Free Imperial City of Weil der Stadt (now part of the Stuttgart Region in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, 30 km west of Stuttgart’s center). His grandfather, Sebald Kepler, had been Lord Mayor of the city. By the time Johannes was born, he had two brothers and one sister and the Kepler family fortune was in decline. His father, Heinrich Kepler, earned a precarious living as a mercenary, and he left the family when Johannes was five years old. He was believed to have died in the Eighty Years’ War in the Netherlands. His mother, Katharina Guldenmann, an innkeeper’s daughter, was a healer and herbalist. Born prematurely, Johannes claimed to have been weak and sickly as a child. Nevertheless, he often impressed travelers at his grandfather’s inn with his phenomenal mathematical faculty.
He was introduced to astronomy at an early age and developed a love for it that would span his entire life. At age six, he observed the Great Comet of 1577, writing that he “was taken by [his] mother to a high place to look at it.” In 1580, at age nine, he observed another astronomical event, a lunar eclipse, recording that he remembered being “called outdoors” to see it and that the moon “appeared quite red”. However, childhood smallpox left him with weak vision and crippled hands, limiting his ability in the observational aspects of astronomy.
HISTORY OF SCIENCE
Beyond his role in the historical development of astronomy and natural philosophy, Kepler has loomed large in the philosophy and historiography of science. Kepler and his laws of motion were central to early histories of astronomy such as Jean-Étienne Montucla’s 1758 Histoire des mathématiques and Jean-Baptiste Delambre’s 1821 Histoire de l’astronomie moderne. These and other histories written from an Enlightenment perspective treated Kepler’s metaphysical and religious arguments with skepticism and disapproval, but later Romantic-era natural philosophers viewed these elements as central to his success. William Whewell, in his influential History of the Inductive Sciences of 1837, found Kepler to be the archetype of the inductive scientific genius; in his Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences of 1840, Whewell held Kepler up as the embodiment of the most advanced forms of scientific method. Similarly, Ernst Friedrich Apelt—the first to extensively study Kepler’s manuscripts, after their purchase by Catherine the Great—identified Kepler as a key to the “Revolution of the sciences”. Apelt, who saw Kepler’s mathematics, aesthetic sensibility, physical ideas, and theology as part of a unified system of thought, produced the first extended analysis of Kepler’s life and work.
Alexandre Koyré’s work on Kepler was, after Apelt, the first major milestone in historical interpretations of Kepler’s cosmology and its influence. In the 1930s and 1940s, Koyré, and a number of others in the first generation of professional historians of science, described the “Scientific Revolution” as the central event in the history of science, and Kepler as a (perhaps the) central figure in the revolution. Koyré placed Kepler’s theorization, rather than his empirical work, at the center of the intellectual transformation from ancient to modern world-views. Since the 1960s, the volume of historical Kepler scholarship has expanded greatly, including studies of his astrology and meteorology, his geometrical methods, the role of his religious views in his work, his literary and rhetorical methods, his interaction with the broader cultural and philosophical currents of his time, and even his role as an historian of science.
Philosophers of science—such as Charles Sanders Peirce, Norwood Russell Hanson, Stephen Toulmin, and Karl Popper—have repeatedly turned to Kepler: examples of incommensurability, analogical reasoning, falsification, and many other philosophical concepts have been found in Kepler’s work. Physicist Wolfgang Pauli even used Kepler’s priority dispute with Robert Fludd to explore the implications of analytical psychology on scientific investigation.
In 1589, after moving through grammar school, Latin school, and seminary at Maulbronn, Kepler attended Tübinger Stift at the University of Tübingen. There, he studied philosophy under Vitus Müller and theology under Jacob Heerbrand (a student of Philipp Melanchthon at Wittenberg), who also taught Michael Maestlin while he was a student, until he became Chancellor at Tübingen in 1590. He proved himself to be a superb mathematician and earned a reputation as a skilful astrologer, casting horoscopes for fellow students. Under the instruction of Michael Maestlin, Tübingen’s professor of mathematics from 1583 to 1631, he learned both the Ptolemaic system and the Copernican system of planetary motion. He became a Copernican at that time. In a student disputation, he defended heliocentrism from both a theoretical and theological perspective, maintaining that the Sun was the principal source of motive power in the universe. Despite his desire to become a minister, near the end of his studies, Kepler was recommended for a position as teacher of mathematics and astronomy at the Protestant school in Graz. He accepted the position in April 1594, at the age of 23.
- Mysterium Cosmographicum (The Sacred Mystery of the Cosmos) (1596)
- De Fundamentis Astrologiae Certioribus (On Firmer Fundaments of Astrology; 1601)
- Astronomiae Pars Optica (The Optical Part of Astronomy) (1604)
- De Stella nova in pede Serpentarii (On the New Star in Ophiuchus’s Foot) (1606)
- Astronomia nova (New Astronomy) (1609)
- Tertius Interveniens (Third-party Interventions) (1610)
- Dissertatio cum Nuncio Sidereo (Conversation with the Starry Messenger) (1610)
- Dioptrice (1611)
- De nive sexangula (On the Six-Cornered Snowflake) (1611) (English translation on Google Books preview)
- De vero Anno, quo aeternus Dei Filius humanam naturam in Utero benedictae Virginis Mariae assumpsit (1614)
- Eclogae Chronicae (1615, published with Dissertatio cum Nuncio Sidereo)
- Nova stereometria doliorum vinariorum (New Stereometry of Wine Barrels) (1615)
- Ephemerides nouae motuum coelestium (1617–30)
- Epitome astronomiae Copernicanae (Epitome of Copernican Astronomy) (published in three parts from 1618 to 1621)
- Harmonices Mundi (Harmony of the Worlds) (1619) (English translation on Google Books)
- Mysterium cosmographicum (The Sacred Mystery of the Cosmos), 2nd edition (1621)
- Tabulae Rudolphinae (Rudolphine Tables) (1627)
- Somnium (The Dream) (1634) (English translation on Google Books preview)