1902 Encyclopedia > Johannes Kepler

Johannes Kepler
German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer

JOHANNES KEPLER (John Kepler) (1571-1630), one of the founders of modern astronomy, was born, December 27, 1571, at Weil, in the duchy of Würtemberg, of which town his grandfather was burgomaster. He was the eldest child of an ill-assorted and ill-starred union. His father, Henry Kepler, was a reckless soldier of fortune; his mother, Catherine Guldenmann, the daughter of a small proprietor of Leonberg, had a violent temper, unmitigated by even the rudiments of culture. Under these circumstances her husband found campaigning in Flanders under Alva a welcome relief from domestic life; and, after having lost his fortune by a forfeited security and tried without success the trade of tavern-keeping in the village of Elmendingen, he finally, in 1589, severed an irksome tie by the desertion of his family. The misfortune and misconduct of his parents were not the only troubles of young Kepler’s childhood. He recovered from small-pox in his fourth year with crippled bands and eyesight permanently impaired; and a constitution enfeebled by premature birth had to withstand successive shocks of severe illness. His schooling began at Leonberg in 1577—the year, as lie himself tells us, of a great comet; domestic bankruptcy, however, occasioned his transference to fieldwork, in which he was exclusively employed for several years. Bodily infirmity, combined with mental aptitude, were eventually considered to indicate a theological vocation; he was accordingly, in 1581, placed at the seminary of Adelberg, and thence removed, two years later, to that of Maulbronn. A brilliant examination for the degree of bachelor procured him, in 1588, admittance on the foundation to the university of Tübingen, where he laid up a copious store of classical erudition, and imbibed Copernican principles from the private instructions of his teacher and lifelong friend, Michael Maestlin. As yet, however, he had little knowledge of, and less inclination for, astronomy; and it was with extreme reluctance that he turned aside from the more promising career of the ministry to accept, early in 1594, the vacant chair of that science at Gratz, placed at the disposal of the Tübingen professors by the Lutheran states of Styria.

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Johannes Kepler

The best-recognized function of German astronomers in that day was the construction of prophesying almanacs, greedily bought by a credulous public, and quickly belied by the future they pretended to disclose. Kepler thus found that the first duties required of him were of an astrological nature, and set himself with characteristic alacrity to master the rules of the art as laid down by Ptolemy and Cardan. He, moreover, sought in the events of his own life a verification of the theory of planetary influences; and it is to this practice that we owe the summary record of each year’s occurrences which, continued almost to his death, affords for his biography a slight but sure foundation. His thoughts, however, were already working in a higher sphere. He early attained to the settled conviction that for the actual disposition of the solar system some abstract intelligible reason must exist, and this, after much meditation, he believed himself to have found in an imaginary relation between the "five regular solids" and the number and distances of the planets. He notes with exultation July 9, 1595, as the date of the pseudo-discovery, the publication of which in Prodromus Dissertationum Cosmographicarum seu Mysrerium Cosmographicum (Tübingen, 1596) procured him much fame, and a friendly correspondence with the two most eminent astronomers of the time, Tycho Brahe and Galileo.

Soon after his arrival at Gratz, Kepler contracted an engagement with Barbara von Alühleck, a wealthy Styrian heiress, who, at the age of twenty-three, had already survived one husband and been divorced from another. Before her relatives could be brought to countenance his pretensions, Kepler was obliged to undertake a journey to Würtemberg to obtain documentary evidence of the somewhat obscure nobility of his family, and it was thus not until April 27, 1597, that the marriage was celebrated. In the following year the archduke Ferdinand, on assuming the government of his hereditary dominions, issued an edict of banishment against Protestant preachers and professors. Kepler immediately fled to the Hungarian frontier, but by the favour of the Jesuits, was recalled and reinstated in his post. The gymnasium, however, was deserted; the nobles of Styria began to murmur at subsidizing, a teacher without pupils; and he found it prudent to look elsewhere for employment. He first turned to his native country; but his refusal to subscribe unconditionally to the rigid formula of belief adopted by the theologians of Tübingen permanently closed against him the gates of his alma mater. His embarrassment was relieved by a letter from Tycho Brahe offering him the position of assistant in his observatory near Prague, which, after a preliminary visit of four months, he accepted. The arrangement was made just in time; for on August 7, 1600, he received definitive notice to leave Gratz, and, having leased his wife’s property, departed with his family for Prague, September 30. His relations with Tycho were not of an entirely agreeable character. The Danish astronomer, though benevolent, was haughty and overbearing; Kepler’s natural irritability was aggravated by prolonged fever, by pecuniary anxieties, and by domestic mismanagement. Nevertheless, after one violent quarrel, smoothed over by mutual concessions, they maintained an amicable intercourse, unexpectedly terminated by Tycho’s death, October 21, 1601.

A brilliant and prosperous career seemed bv this event to be thrown open to Kepler. The emperor Rudolph II. immediately appointed him to succeed his patron as imperial mathematician, although at a reduced salary of 500 florins; the invaluable treasure of Tycho’s observations was, after some futile opposition on the part of his heirs, placed at his disposal; and the laborious, but congenial task was entrusted to him of completing the tables to which the grateful Dane had already affixed the title of Rudolphine. The first works executed by him at Prague were, however, a homage to the astrological proclivities of the emperor. In De fundamentis astrologie certioribus (Prague, 1602) he declared his purpose of preserving and purifying the grain of truth which he believed the science to contain. Indeed, the doctrine of "aspects" and "influences" fitted excellently with his mystical conception of the universe, and enabled him to discharge with a semblance of sincerity the most lucrative part of his professional duties. Although he strictly limited his prophetic pretensions to the estimate of tendencies and probabilities, his forecasts were none the less in demand. Shrewd sense and considerable knowledge of the world came to the aid of stellar lore in the preparation of "prognostics" which, not unfrequently hitting off the event, earned him as much credit with the vulgar as his cosmical speculations with the learned. He drew the horoscopes of the emperor and Wallenstein,. as well as of a host of lesser magnates; but, tbough keenly alive to the unworthy character of such a trade, he made necessity his excuse for a compromise with superstition. "Nature," he wrote, "which has conferred upon every animal the means of subsistence, has given astrology as an adjunct and ally to astronomy," He dedicated to the emperor in 1603 a treatise on the "great conjunction" of that year (Judicium, de trigono igneo); and he published his observations on a brilliant star which appeared suddenly, September 30, 1604, and remained visible for seventeen months, in De stella nova in pede Serpentarii (Prague, 1606). While sharing the opinion of Tycho as to the origin of such bodies by condensation of nebulous matter from the Milky Way, be attached a mystical signification to the coincidence in time and place of the sidereal apparition with a triple conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

The main task of his life was not meanwhile neglected. This was nothing less than the foundation of a new astronomy, in which physical cause should replace arbitrary hypothesis. A preliminary study of optics led to the publication, in 1601, of his Astronomiae pars optica, containing important discoveries in the theory of vision, anda notable approximation towards the true law of refraction. But it was not until 1609 that, the "great Martian labour." being, at length completed, he was able, in his own figurative language, to lead the captive planet to the foot of the imperial throne. From the time of his first introduction to Tycho he had devoted himself to the investigation of the orbit of Mars, which, on account of its relatively large eccentricity, had always been especially recalcitrant to theory, and the results appeared in Astronomia nova _______, ses Physica coelestis tradita commentariis, de motibus stellae Martis (Prague, 1609). In this, the most memorable of Kepler’s multifarious writings, two of the cardinal principles of modern astronomy—the laws of elliptical orbits and of equal areas—were established;1 important truths relating to gravity were enunciated, and the tides ascribed to the influence of lunar attraction; while an attempt to explain the planetary revolutions in the then backward condition of mechanical knowledge produced a theory of vortices closely resembling that afterwards adopted by Descartes. Having been provided, in August 1610, by Ernest, archbishop of Cologne, with one of the new Galilean instruments, Kepler began, with unspeakable delight, to observe the wonders revealed by it. He had welcomed with a little essay called Dissertatio cum Nuncio Sidereo Galileo’s first announcement of celestial novelties; he now, in his Dioptrice (Augsburg, 1611), expounded the theory of refraction by lenses, and suggested the principle of the "astronomical" or inverting telescope. Indeed the work may be said to have founded the branch of science to which it gave its name.

The year 1611 was marked by Kepler as the most, disastrous of his life. The death by small-pox of his favourite child was followed by that of his wife, who, long a prey to melancholy, was at last, July 3, carried off by typhus. In his review of their conjugal life, remorse for frequent outbursts of impatience towards his shiftless though well-meaning helpmate took the place of regret for her loss. Public calamity was added to private bereavement. On the 23d of May 1611 Matthias, brother of the emperor, assumed the Bohemian crown in Prague, compelling Rudolph to take refuge in the citadel, where he died, on the. 20th of January following. Kepler’s fidelity in remaining with him to the last did not deprive him of the favour of his successor. Payment of arrears, now arnounting to upwards of 4000 florins, was not, however, in the desperate condition of the imperial finances, to be hoped for; and he was glad, while retaining his position as court, astronomer, to accept (in 1612) the office of mathematician to the states of Upper Austria. His residence at Linz. was troubled by the harsh conduct of the pastor Hitzler, in excluding him from the rites of his church on the ground of supposed Calvinistic leanings—a decision confirmed, with the addition of an insulting reprimand, on his appeal to Würtemberg., In 1613 he appeared with thal emperor Matthias before the diet of Ratisbon as the advocate of the introduction into Germany of the Gregorian calendar; but the attempt was for the time frustrated by anti-papal prejudice. The attention devoted by him to chronological subjects is evidenced by the publication about this period of several essays in which he sought to prove that the birth of Christ took place five years earlier than the commonly accepted date.

Kepler’s second courtship forms the subject of a highly characteristic letter addressed by him to Baron Stralendorf, in which he reviews the qualifications of eleven candidates in for his hand, and explains the reasons which decided his choice in favour of a portionless orphan girl named Susanna Reutlinger. The marriage was celebrated at Linz, October 30, 1613, and seems to have proved a happy and suitable one. The abundant vintage of that year drew his attention to the defective methods in use for estimating the cubical contents of vessels, and his essay on the subject (Nova Stereometria Doliorum, Linz, 1613) entitles him to rank among those who prepared the discovery of the infinitesimal calculus. His observations on the three comets of 1618 were published in De Cometis, contemporaneously with the Harmonice Mundi (Augsburg, 1619), of which the first lineaments had baen traced twenty years previously at Gratz. This extraordinary production is memorable as having announced the discovery of the "third law"—that of the sesquiplicate ratio between the planetary periods and distances. But the main purport of the treatise was the exposition of an elaborate system of celebtial harmonies depending on the various and varying velocities of the several planets, of which the sentient soul animating the sun was the solitary auditor. The work exhibiting this fantastic emulation of extravagance with genius was dedicated to James I. of England, and the compliment was acknowledged with an invitation to that island, conveyed through Sir Henry Wotton. Notwithstanding the distracted state of his own country, however, he refused to abandon it, as he had previously, in 1617, declined the post of successor to Magini in the mathematical chair of Bologna.

The insurmountable difficulties preserted by the lunar theory forced Kepler, after an enormous ainount of fruitless labour, to abandon his design of comprehending the whole scheme of the heavens in one great work to be called Hipparchus, and he then threw a ortion of his materials into the form of a dialogue intended for the instruction of general readers. The Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae (Linz and Frankfort, 1618-21), a lucid and attractive text-book of Copernican science, was remarkable for the prominence given to "physical astronomy," as well as for the extension to the Jovian system of the laws recently discovered to regulate the motions of the planets. The first of a series of ephemerides, calculated on these principles, was published by him at Linz in 1617; and in that for 1620, dedicated to Napier, he for the first titne employed logarithms. This important iuvention was eagerly welcomed by him, and its theory formed the subject of a treatise entitled Chilias Logarithmorum, printed in 1624, but circulated in manuscript three years earlier, which largely contributed to bring the new method into general use in Germany.

His studies, were, however, interrupted by a painful family trouble. The restless disposition and unbridled tongue of Catherine Kepler his mother created for her numerous enemies in the little town of Leonberg; while her unguarded conduct exposed her to a species of calumny at that time but too readily circulated and believed. As early as 1615 suspicions of sorcery began to be spread against her, which she, with more spirit than prudence, met with an action for libel. The suit was, by the connivance of the judicial authorities, purposely protracted, and at length, August 5, 1620, the unhappy woman, then in her seventyfourth year, was arrested on a formal charge of witchcraft. Kepler immediately hastened to Würtemberg, and devoted a whole year to the zealous advocacy of her cause. It was owing to his indefatigable exertions that, contrary to general expectation, she was acquitted after having suffered thirteen months’ imprisonment, and endured with undaunted courage the formidable ordeal of "territion," or examination under the imminent threat of torture. She survived her release only a few months, dying April 13, 1622.

Kepler’s whole attention was now devoted to the production of the new tables. "Germany," he wrote, "does not long for peace more anxiously than I do for their publication." Financial difficulties, however, combined with civil and religious convulsions, long delayed the accomplishment of his desires. From June 24 to August 29, 1626, Linz was besieged, and its inhabitants reduced to the utmost straits by bands of insurgent peasants. The pursuit of science needed a more tranquil shelter; and accordingly, on the raising of the blockade, Kepler obtained permission to transfer his types to Ulm, where, in September 1627, the Rudolphine Tables were at length given to the world. Although by no means free from errors, their value appears from the fact that they ranked for a century as the best aid to astronomy. Appended were tables of logarithms and of refraction, together with Tycho’s catalogue of 777 stars, enlarged by Kepler to 1005.

The work of Kepler’s life was now virtually completed,. but not so its vicissitudes. His claims upon the insolvent, imperial exchequer amounted by this time to 12,000 florins. The emperor Ferdinand II., too happy to transfer the burden, countenanced an arrangement by which Kepler entered the service of the duke of Friedland (Wallenstein), who assumed the full responsibility of the debt. In July 1628 Kepler accordingly arrived with his family at Sagan in Silesia, where he applied himself to the printing of his ephemerides up to the year 1636, and whence he issued, in 1629, a Notice to the Curious in Things Celestial, warning astronomers of approaching transits. That of Mercury was actually seen by Gassendi in Paris, November 7, 1631 (being the first passage of a planet across the sun ever observed); that of Venus, predicted for the 6th of December following, was invisible in western Europe. Wallenstein’s promises to Kepler were but imperfectly fulfilled. In lieu of the sums due, he offered him a professorship at Rostock, which Kepler declined, being unwilling to compromise his claim. An expedition to Ratisbon, undertaken for the purpose of representing his case to the Diet, terminated his life. Shaken by the journey, which he had performed entirely on horseback, he was attacked with fever, and died at Ratisbon, November 15 (N. S.), 1630, in the fifty-ninth year of his age. An inventory of his effects found among his papers showed him to have been possessed of no inconsiderable property at the time of his death. It is true that he had often been severely straitened ; but there is reason to believe that his complaints on the subject were to some extent exaggerated. By his first wife he had five, and by his second seven children, of whom only two a son and a daughter, reached maturity.

The character of Kepler’s genius was one of which it is especially difficult to arrive at a just estimate. His irresistible tendency towards mystical speculation formed a not less fundamental quality of his mind than its strong grasp of positive scientific truth. Without assigning to each element its due value, no sound comprehension of his modes of thought call be attained. His idea of the universe was essentially Pythagorean and Platonic. He started with the conviction that the arrangement of its parts must correspond with certain abstract conceptions of the beautiful and harmonious. His imagination, thus kindled, animated him to those severe labours of which his great discoveries were the fruit. His demonstration that the planes of all the planetary orbits pass through the centre of the sun, coupled with his clear recognition of the still as the moving power of the system, entitles him to rank as the founder of physical astronomy. But the fantastic relations imagined by him of planetary movements and distances to musical intervals and geometrical constructions seemed to hiniself discoveries no less admirable than the achievements which have sectired his last! fame. Outside the boundaries of the solar systein, the metaphysical side of his genius, no longer held in cheek by experience, fully asserted itself. The Keplerian like the Pythagorean cosmos was threefold, consisting of the centre, or sun, the surface, being the sphere of the fixed stars, and the intermediate space, filled with ethereal matter. It is a mistake to suppose that he regarded the stars as so many suns. He quotes indeed the opinion of Giordano Bruno to that effect, but with dissent. Among his happy conjectures may be mentioned that of the sun’s axial rotation, postulated by him as the physical cause of the revolutions of the planets, and soon after confirmed by the discover of sun-spots ; the suggestion of a periodical variation in the obliquity of the ecliptic; and the explanation as an effect of a solar atmosphere of the radiance observed to surround the totally eclipsed sun.

It is impossible to consider without surprise the colossal amount of work accomplished by Kepler under numerous disadvantages. His health was uncertain, his powers of calculation indifferent, his interruptions numerous, his cares at times overwhelming. But his iron industry counted no obstacles, and secured for him the highest triumph of genius, that of having given to mankind the best that was in him. In private character he was amiable and affectionate; his generosity in recognizing the merits of others secured him against the worst shafts of envy; and a life marked by numerous disquietudes was cheered and ennobled by sentiments of sincere piety.

Kepler’s extensive literary remains, purchased by the empress Catherine Il. in 1724 from some Frankfort merchants, and long inaccessibly deposited in the observatory of Pulkowa, have at length been completely brought to light, under the able editorship of Dr Ch. Frisch, in the first complete edition of Kepler’s works. This important publication (Joannis Kepleri opera ovinia, Frankfort, 1858-71, 8 vols. 8vo ) contains, besides the works already enumerated and several minor treatises, a posthumous scientiric satire entitled Joh. Keppleri Somnium (first printed in 1634), and a vast mass of his correspondence. A careful biography is appended, founded mainly on his private notes and other authentic documents.

The reader may also usefully consult Reuschle, Kepler und die Astronomie, Frankfort, 1871; Goebel, Ueber Kepler’s astronomische Anschauungen, Halle, 1871; Apelt, Johann Kepler’s astronomische Weltansicht, Leipsic, 1849; Breitschivert, Johann Kepler’s Leben und Wirken, Stuttgart, 1831; W. Forster, Johann Kepler und die Harmonie der Sphären, Berlin, 1862 ; R. Wolf, Geschichte der, Astronomie, Munich, 1877. (A. M. C.)


46-1 See ASTRONOMY, vol. ii. p. 752.

The article above was written by Miss Agnes M. Clerke; made astronomical observations at the Cape of Good Hope, 1888; gained the Actonian Prize for her works on astronomy, 1893; author of A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century and Problems in Astrophysics.

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