Thursday, April 21, 2016

Having A Bad Day? How Johannes Kepler Found Harmony

Next time you have “one of those days” - when you forget your umbrella, catch all the red lights, or get served a latte instead of the cappuccino you ordered - contrast it with one of the days lived by someone in the 16th century. In the 1500s, people believed they were special. Our home was the center of the Universe. The Sun revolved around Earth in a perfect circle. And the Heavens were immutable. Then a handful of pesky astronomers came along and declared, "Everything you thought you knew is wrong!"

The trio of brave astronomers who deflated humanity’s ego by dethroning Earth from the center seat of the cosmos. From left to right: Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo.
Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei affirmed and refined ideas first put forth by Nicolaus Copernicus in the 1500s, essentially blowing people’s minds with the notion that the Earth rotates around the Sun. Kepler further showed that planets do not – gasp! – move in perfect circles, but rather follow elliptical orbits. Most people refused to entertain such nonsense and branded the ideas heretical.  
While we take this knowledge for granted today, the idea that planets - including Earth - move in imperfect circles (i.e. ellipses) with the Sun at one of the foci was deeply contrarian to what most people believed at the time.
We can better appreciate the magnitude of Kepler’s discovery, and put our trivial modern complaints in perspective, by reviewing what life was like back then. Born in Germany in 1571, Kepler never really got to know his father, Heinrich; like many men at the time, he constantly joined militias fighting numerous wars across Europe. During the few times Heinrich was home, his belligerent nature brought war into the house. Kepler’s mother, Katharina, was an amateur herbalist who made potions in an effort to help the sick.
Medicine in the Dark Ages was brutal, based on folktales and superstition. Treatments were usually senseless, cruel, and wildly ineffective. In addition to bloodletting (shown) and exorcism, people were guinea pigs for a wide array of herbal concoctions and potions. Kepler’s mother dabbled in the herbal arts, something she would later regret.

While Galileo made great strides in developing telescopes that revealed unprecedented detail of distal objects, no one suspected that our eyes were missing anything important here on Earth. People of Kepler’s time had no idea that the water they drank, the food they ate, or the air they breathed teemed with billions of microscopic creatures that could sicken them. Consequently, the people in Kepler’s time had no concept of germs, so illness was often attributed to the supernatural.


Due to this lack of medical knowledge, and seemingly endless warfare, the average life span for someone in Kepler’s day was typically just 40 years. One of the major ailments of his time was the dreaded “pox”, referring to the smallpox virus that we have now eradicated from the planet thanks to vaccination efforts. Kepler himself suffered from smallpox as a child, the infection leaving him with impaired vision and disfigured hands.

Smallpox disfigured or killed millions before Edward Jenner developed a vaccine in 1796.
Like many fathers during his time, Kepler had to endure heartbreaking losses involving his children. His first two children with his first wife, Barbara, died in infancy. His other three children all suffered from an outbreak of smallpox, and his 6 year old did not survive it. The pox was probably brought to Prague by invading soldiers, who also burned houses, raped the women, and slaughtered the men. Somehow the Keplers survived the war in Prague, but Barbara soon died of typhus. Kepler would marry again but suffer the loss of three more children from epilepsy, tuberculosis, and smallpox again.


It is difficult for us to imagine, but radio, television, and WiFi did not exist. There was no electricity, indoor plumbing, or sanitation services. No central heating, no air conditioning, no water treatment systems. People did not bathe regularly (usually just once a year!) nor did they brush their teeth. Most likely your job would be in agriculture and you would be poor and illiterate. Meat was a luxury item that was put on display to impress guests during conversation, giving rise to the sayings “bring home the bacon” and “chew the fat”.


Of course there were no planes, trains, or automobiles. Most people lived in small villages and their entire existence was usually confined to a 25-mile radius. Everyone knew everyone - stories and gossip were a major source of entertainment (some things never change). Being a mathematical wizard, Kepler’s talents gave him a license to travel and hobnob with royalty as an “Imperial Mathematician”. But even that couldn’t help him surmount the tide of hysteria about to consume his family.


While many may argue that doing math for a living is torture enough, Kepler had the misfortune of being drawn into the frenzy of witchcraft. Kepler fought tirelessly to free his beloved 70 year old mother, Katharina, who was imprisoned as a witch because one of the potions she administered to a neighborhood gossip tasted vile and made her sicker. Not helping matters, Katharina had an aunt who was burned for being a witch…and she did ask to have her father’s skull turned into a drinking cup for Johannes (it’s not like they had a Sharper Image store to find man-toy gifts).


If these charges seem a tad outrageous to you, you might be right. Some argue that the accusations against Kepler’s mother were fashioned to make Kepler suffer. His radical ideas about the cosmos were heretical to many, but it is not easy to bring an Imperial Mathematician to trial. So they went after an easier target.  


Despite eloquent counter-arguments delivered by her son, Katharina’s trial dragged on and she was sentenced to territio verbalis, a psychological terrorism in which she was shown the horrific instruments of torture and subjected to gruesomely detailed descriptions of how they would be used. She did not cave and defiantly announced, “They may do whatever they wish to me. Even if they wanted to pull one vein after the other out of my body, I would have nothing to confess.” So after 425 days in a dank prison with little more than bread and broth, she was finally released. While there is an undeniable element of victory here, the abuse wrecked her aging body and she died nearly six months later. 

Just hearing about the medieval torture devices was enough to force a confession out of many a prisoner.
During this time when Kepler was fighting a silly superstition to save his mother and watching helplessly as his children succumb to disease, he also lost a good friend in The Thirty Years’ War raging between the Catholics and Protestants. In the midst of the pointless bloodshed driven by the irrational behavior of men, Kepler cocooned himself in his study to find solace in the beauty of mathematics and geometry, resulting in another masterpiece, The Harmony of the World. Like his mother, he seemed to draw strength from adversity, and discovered logic in the Universe when none could be found among the humans on Earth.

Written during a period of his life that was distinctly unharmonious, Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi (Harmony of the World) contained his famous third law of planetary motion.
So the next time you feel like your planets must be out of alignment, pause for a moment to reflect on the wonderful marvels that surround us today and make  life longer, healthier, and more entertaining. With war, plagues, poverty, and witch-hunts raging all around him, Kepler was able to transform our world with his mathematical prowess. Kepler weathered a hurricane of human folly and managed to illuminate fundamental truths in a time of darkness that shine to this day, over 400 years later.

Kepler also recorded the appearance of this “new star” in the sky in 1604, which is now known to have been a supernova. He also has a space telescope named after him; launched in 2009, the Kepler space observatory has found thousands of new candidate planets.  


Contributed by:  Bill Sullivan



Connor, James A. (2004). Kepler’s Witch. New York, NY. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.


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