Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Happy Birthday, Johannes

KeplerToday in 1571 Johannes Kepler was born in Wurttemberg, Germany. Kepler was born to Lutheran parents, but never subscribed fully to the doctrine of "the real presence" and refused to sign the Formula of Concord; therefor he was excluded from the sacrament. Being unaccepted by the Lutherans and not a Catholic, either, Kepler had no refuge during the Thirty Years War and the counter-reformation, which meant he was forced to move over and over again to stay alive.

I quote from the biography of Kepler on NASA's Kepler Mission page, where you can go for more details on his work and his three laws (my emphasis):
Kepler was forced to leave his teaching post at Graz due to the counter Reformation because he was Lutheran and moved to Prague to work with the renowned Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe. He inherited Tycho's post as Imperial Mathematician when Tycho died in 1601. Using the precise data that Tycho had collected, Kepler discovered that the orbit of Mars was an ellipse. In 1609 he published Astronomia Nova, delineating his discoveries, which are now called Kepler's first two laws of planetary motion. And what is just as important about this work, "it is the first published account wherein a scientist documents how he has coped with the multitude of imperfect data to forge a theory of surpassing accuracy" (O. Gingerich in forward to Johannes Kepler New Astronomy translated by W. Donahue, Cambridge Univ Press, 1992), a fundamental law of nature. Today we call this the scientific method.

In 1612 Lutherans were forced out of Prague, so Kepler moved on to Linz. His wife and two sons had recently died. He remarried happily, but had many personal and financial troubles. Two infant daughters died and Kepler had to return to W├╝rttemburg where he successfully defended his mother against charges of witchcraft. In 1619 he published Harmonices Mundi, in which he describes his "third law."

In spite of more forced relocations, Kepler published the seven-volume Epitome Astronomiae in 1621. This was his most influential work and discussed all of heliocentric astronomy in a systematic way. He then went on to complete the Rudolphine Tables that Tycho had started long ago. These included calculations using logarithms, which he developed, and provided perpetual tables for calculating planetary positions for any past or future date. Kepler used the tables to predict a pair of transits by Mercury and Venus of the Sun, although he did not live to witness the events.

Johannes Kepler died in Regensburg in 1630, while on a journey from his home in Sagan to collect a debt. His grave was demolished within two years because of the Thirty Years War. Frail of body, but robust in mind and spirit, Kepler was scrupulously honest to the data.

What a tremendous epitaph that is.

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