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.