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.|
|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.|
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.|
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.|
|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.|
Contributed by: Bill Sullivan
Connor, James A. (2004). Kepler’s Witch. New York, NY. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.