Tech UPTechnologyKepler, the Woody Allen of the Renaissance

Kepler, the Woody Allen of the Renaissance


On July 9, 1595, an obscure professor was giving his class. While drawing on the blackboard he had what he would later remember as the greatest insight of his life. Enamored as he was with Platonic ideas, he pondered the fact that there were only five regular solids—those that, like the cube, have all their faces alike—but there were six planets. It was clear to him that the heavens had to conform to Platonic geometry, there had to be as many solids as there were planets. And then it happened. The light was made. What really happened was that the planets orbited between the interstices of the platonic solids , nested one inside the other like a collection of Russian dolls. The excitement of this math teacher was such that he wrote: “And so intense was the pleasure caused by this discovery that it can never be expressed in words.”

The truth is that this scheme is worthless. Although in the end this mathematician knew it, he never repudiated it: it was like getting rid of that mysticism that Plato granted to geometry.

In 1597 he married a widow whom he described as “simple-witted and fat-bodied,” and had to negotiate harshly with the Duke of Württemberg over the construction of some kind of heavenly bar with an incredibly complicated mechanism that, through hidden plumbing, coming from the different planetary spheres, it would serve seven drinks: that of the Sun, water of life; the Moon, water; Mercury, brandy; Venus, mead; Mars, vermouth; white wine would come from Jupiter and aged red wine or beer from Saturn. He never finished it, any more than he did with the edition of a newspaper devoted to meteorology, a chronology of the Bible, and a vain attempt to explain the universe by strictly applying Plato’s music of the spheres: the earth was given the mi notes. and fa for two very unmathematical reasons, misery and hunger (from the Latin, fames ).

In those last years of the 16th century he wrote the book Mysterium Cosmographicum , a work of which the faculty of the University of Tübingen tried to prevent its publication. A copy was sent to Galileo, who surely did not even read it . Another reached the hands of the best astronomical observer of the time, imperial mathematician of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, Tycho Brahe. The text powerfully caught his attention and a few years later he hired him as his assistant, an apparently irrelevant fact, but one that would dramatically change our perception of the cosmos. That dark mathematician was nothing more and nothing less than Johannes Kepler.

The unhappy life of Kepler

Kepler was born in 1571 in Weil der Stadt, Württemburg, Germany, and suffered a miserable youth. He describes his father, Heinrich, as a vicious, inflexible, quarrelsome man destined to end badly. Soldier of fortune, merchant and tavern keeper , for unknown reasons he was about to be hanged in 1577. Kepler’s hard pen has assigned similar epithets to his mother Katherine: herbalist, murmurer, quarrelsome and bad-tempered.

Sick to the point of nausea, during his childhood and youth Kepler suffered from practically everything : bad digestion, boils, myopia, double vision, hands deformed as a result of smallpox that almost took him to the grave, an extravagant and long assortment of diseases. of the skin like scabies and, as the astronomer describes, “chronic rotting wounds on the feet.” If this were not enough, his first sexual relations on New Year’s Eve 1592 were anything but pleasurable. He had them “with the greatest conceivable difficulty, experiencing excruciating pain in the bladder.”

I don’t think it would come as much of a surprise to learn that his classmates also didn’t think very highly of him. Something that not even he had of himself; he described himself as a person “with a very doggy nature in every way “.

The experimental Brahe against the theoretical Kepler

In 1600 two great minds joined forces: Brahe, the experimentalist, and Kepler, the theoretician. No other person on Earth could have done what their ingenuity achieved: Brahe, near-perfect measurements of the positions of the planets; Kepler, get all the juice out of that job.

Both astronomers were diametrically opposite in their looks and characters. Brahe was a playboy. He sported a belly of immense proportions as a result of eating well and drinking better, and a metallic nose, since he had lost his nasal bone in a youth duel. By contrast, Kepler was sullen, neurotic, and full of self-loathing . But they agreed on something: both were arrogant and ranted about anything. They were always arguing, especially when Kepler asked for more observational data and Brahe refused. Not without reason; Brahe was aware of Kepler’s intelligence and feared that his genius would overshadow him. But he also knew that if he kept this up Kepler would eventually get fed up and go somewhere else. So he hatched a Machiavellian plan: he would let him choose the observations he needed from a single planet, Mars.

Why? Tycho knew that Mars presented an almost insurmountable difficulty . Being close to the Earth, its position in the sky could be determined with great accuracy, which meant that neither the geocentric nor the heliocentric theory were able to account for its orbit. Kepler, of course, knew nothing of this. Over dinner, Kepler, puffed up with pride, prophesied that he would solve it in eight days.

Eight years later he was still working on the problem.

Tycho Brahe died on October 24, 1601 after bingeing on meat and beer during a banquet. He did not get to know the great triumph of Kepler when he discovered that the orbit of Mars was an ellipse centered on the Sun.

the end of a life

Kepler’s life was not what we could call free and, of course, the end of his days was not going to be. As he offered the world his three famous laws, smallpox transmitted by soldiers fighting in the Thirty Years’ War killed his most beloved son, six-year-old Friedrich. Due to such a tragic loss, his wife fell into the deepest melancholy and died shortly after of typhus. Kepler’s mother was threatened with torture for practicing witchcraft and nearly burned: she was saved thanks to the successful intervention of her son as a defense attorney. He died six months later.

So Kepler moved with his small family to the city of Sagan, in a remote region of central Europe. When he was fired from his position as astrologer to Duke Albrecht von Wallenstein, Kepler left Sagan and, alone and on horseback, set off in search of money to feed his children. He went to Regensburg (Regensburg) to collect the 12,000 guilders owed to him by the emperor. There he fell ill and died on November 15, 1630 at the age of 59. Those who were with him on his deathbed said that he did not speak but instead pointed his index finger at his head and then at the sky.

Given the misfortunes that beset him, it is not surprising to discover that he had written his own epitaph:

I measured the skies and now I measure the shadows.
The spirit was in heaven, the body rests on Earth.

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