Part biography and part overview of the history of astronomy, this book could aptly be subtitled The trials and tribulations of Johannes Kepler. Life in early 17th century Europe was not easy. Kepler’s was especially difficult. He was a sickly child but intelligent and hard-working, none of which enhanced his popularity with his young peers. He was recognized by his teachers, though, and was given opportunities, but his religion limited his advancement. He was a professed Lutheran, which precluded him from being easily accepted in places that were ostensibly Catholic, but even Lutherans were uncomfortable with him because of his sympathies with Calvinist opinions on the Eucharist. This may seem like inconsequential religious trivia to us now, but these things were considered critically important then. Professing unsanctioned beliefs could prevent you from getting a job, could cause you to be exiled, could even get you tried for heresy and executed. Kepler’s life was directly impacted by the first two.
This was also a time in which “about two-thirds of all babies born would be dead before the age of twenty….” (Pg. 157) Of Kepler’s twelve children, at least nine died in childhood. And his mother was almost executed as a witch. “In Weil de Stadt, the town of Kepler’s birth, thirty-eight witches were executed in the period 1615-1629. In Leonberg, where Kepler’s mother still lived, six women had been condemned as witches just in the two years 1615-1616.” (Pg. 166) Kepler himself had to intervene to prevent his mother from being another victim. She was accused of witchcraft, imprisoned, and threatened with torture. Eventually, she was pardoned, no doubt partly due to his influence, only to die six months later possibly because of her ordeal.
But despite all of these impositions on his time and attention, Kepler still managed to work diligently on ‘philosophical’ matters and make important contributions. He determined the elliptical paths of planets and provided evidence for the Copernican order of the Solar System. He was not a modern thinker; his view of the universe never deviated far from that of his culture and religion, but he did have the courage to question assumptions, to examine evidence, and to write about what he had discovered. In some ways, he could be considered a scientist.
The world was a much different place a scant handful of centuries ago. Well, maybe not the physical world. It’s the same shape, and all the continents and oceans and islands are pretty much where they were back then, but people and how they see the world have changed significantly. Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter demonstrates this using letters to the great astronomer from his loving daughter Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun. Since Galileo and her mother never wed, she was judged unmarriageable, so her father, in a sincere act of paternal care, arranged for her and her younger sister to be sent to a convent when Celeste (then Virginia) was 13. Neither daughter ever ventured outside its walls again. In our culture, which views individual freedom and personal choice as inherent rights, this might seem harsh treatment, but Maria Celeste doesn’t consider herself imprisoned or unfortunate in any way. Her father, conversely, when he is sentenced to what amounts to house arrest by the Inquisition for holding the belief that the Earth moves around the Sun, does feel unjustly put upon, even though he is no more confined at the end of his life than his daughters have been most of theirs. How they see their situations is determined by how they see the world, which is quite different from how most people in Western society now see it. Galileo is one of the reasons why.
Sadly, only half of the long correspondence between father and daughter has been preserved. Galileo saved his daughter’s letters. Celeste saved his to her as well, but they were apparently destroyed by an overzealous of fearful mother abbess after Celeste’s untimely death (age 34) from dysentery. But from Celeste’s letters and other accounts of the time, we can learn a lot about the life and times of Galileo. I think most of us today would see his world as harsh, oppressive, a place where everything you do, even your thoughts, are subject to judgement and punishment by established authorities. I am often struck by how subservient, how obsequious, the tone of letters are from this time. Today, sucking up to the boss is viewed as demeaning. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was apparently not only expected but necessary. It is only by viewing Galileo’s accomplishments in this context that we can fully appreciate his bravery and his contribution to shaping our world today. It’s a better place because of him.