The universe was created on this day in 4977 B.C., according to the German mathematician and astronomer-astrologer Johannes Kepler. The date is off by over 13 billion years, say today’s Big Bang theorists — billions more than that, say some with a competing TOE (Theory of Everything). But Kepler maintains his reputation as a founder of modern science, based on his more verified accomplishments — work that confirmed the sun-centered Copernican universe, established several fundamental principles of planetary motion, and came close to establishing, decades before Newton, the law of gravity.
Why Kepler, a contemporary of Galileo’s, remains relatively unknown is addressed head-on in Kepler’s Witch, a recent biography by James A. Connor. The book’s subtitle, “An Astronomer’s Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother,” indicates Connor’s emphasis on the man and his times, rather than on hard science. Connor offers his rationale for doing so in his Introduction, by way of an anecdote from his time doing research in Germany during the years after 9/11, as the Iraq War raged. Traveling by train, Connor finds himself sitting across from a young German man who is reading the Qur’an and is openly suspicious of Americans:
“What makes you think we want to know what you have to say about Kepler? You cowboy Americans and your cowboy wars. How many people have you killed this week?”
He watched me, waiting for me to bite. I wanted to explain to him about World War I and World War II, but I didn’t think this was the time. “Well, we were attacked, you see,” I said finally. “I was just across the river in Jersey at the time, so I saw it myself. So don’t talk to me about our ‘cowboy wars.’ “
The German returns to his Qur’an for several hours, and then has another go:
“So why Kepler?” he said.
I looked at my shoes and thought about how to answer him. After a while, I looked up and said, “Because in 1620 Kepler’s mother was being tried for witchcraft. Germany was well into the Thirty Years’ War. Kepler had already lost his first wife and little boy to disease, and in the years following he lost three more children. In his adult life, he was chased out of one town after another by the Counter-Reformation. He was excommunicated by his own church. And yet, throughout most of those years he was writing a book called The Harmony of the World. This,” I said, “is a man worth knowing.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.