Kepler/Chapter 6

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Soon after its publication Kepler's "Epitome" was placed along with the book of Copernicus, on the list of books prohibited by the Congregation of the Index at Rome, and he feared that this might prevent the publication or sale of his books in Austria also, but was told that though Galileo's violence was getting him into trouble, there would be no difficulty in obtaining permission for learned men to read any prohibited books, and that he (Kepler) need fear nothing so long as he remained quiet.

In his various works on Comets, he adhered to the opinion that they travelled in straight lines with varying velocity. He suggested that comets come from the remotest parts of ether, as whales and monsters from the depth of the sea, and that perhaps they are something of the nature of silkworms, and are wasted and consumed in spinning their own tails. Napier's invention of logarithms at once attracted Kepler's attention. He must have regretted that the discovery was not made early enough to save him a vast amount of labour in computations, but he managed to find time to compute some logarithm tables for himself, though he does not seem to have understood quite what Napier had done, and though with his usual honesty he gave full credit to the Scottish baron for his invention.

Though Eugenists may find a difficulty in reconciling Napier's brilliancy with the extreme youth of his parents, they may at any rate attribute Kepler's occasional fits of bad temper to heredity. His cantankerous mother, Catherine Kepler, had for some years been carrying on an action for slander against a woman who had accused her of administering a poisonous potion. Dame Kepler employed a young advocate who for reasons of his own "nursed" the case so long that after five years had elapsed without any conclusion being reached another judge was appointed, who had himself suffered from the caustic tongue of the prosecutrix, and so was already prejudiced against her. The defendant, knowing this, turned the tables on her opponent by bringing an accusation of witchcraft against her, and Catherine Kepler was imprisoned and condemned to the torture in July, 1620. Kepler, hearing of the sentence, hurried back from Linz, and succeeded in stopping the completion of the sentence, securing his mother's release the following year, as it was made clear that the only support for the case against her was her own intemperate language. Kepler returned to Linz, and his mother at once brought another action for costs and damages against her late opponent, but died before the case could be tried.

A few months before this Sir Henry Wotton, English Ambassador to Venice, visited Kepler, and finding him as usual, almost penniless, urged him to go to England, promising him a warm welcome there. Kepler, however, would not at that time leave Germany, giving several reasons, one of which was that he dreaded the confinement of an island. Later on he expressed his willingness to go as soon as his Rudolphine Tables were published, and lecture on them, even in England, if he could not do it in Germany, and if a good enough salary were forthcoming.

In 1624 he went to Vienna, and managed to extract from the Treasury 6000 florins on account of expenses connected with the Tables, but, instead of a further grant, was given letters to the States of Swabia, which owed money to the Imperial treasury. Some of this he succeeded in collecting, but the Tables were still further delayed by the religious disturbances then becoming violent. The Jesuits contrived to have Kepler's library sealed up, and, but for the Imperial protection, would have imprisoned him also; moreover the peasants revolted and blockaded Linz. In 1627, however, the long promised Tables, the first to discard the conventional circular motion, were at last published at Ulm in four parts. Two of these parts consisted of subsidiary Tables, of logarithms and other computing devices, another contained Tables of the elements of the sun, moon, and planets, and the fourth gave the places of a thousand stars as determined by Tycho, with Tycho's refraction Tables, which had the peculiarity of using different values for the refraction of the sun, moon, and stars. From a map prefixed to some copies of the Tables, we may infer that Kepler was one of the first, if not actually the first, to suggest the method of determining differences of longitude by occultations of stars at the moon's limb. In an Appendix, he showed how his Tables could be used by astrologers for their predictions, saying "Astronomy is the daughter of Astrology, and this modern Astrology again is the daughter of Astronomy, bearing something of the lineaments of her grandmother; and, as I have already said, this foolish daughter, Astrology, supports her wise but needy mother, Astronomy, from the profits of a profession not generally considered creditable". There is no doubt that Kepler strongly resented having to depend so much for his income on such methods which he certainly did not consider creditable.

It was probably Galileo whose praise of the new Tables induced the Grand Duke of Tuscany to send Kepler a gold chain soon after their publication, and we may perhaps regard it as a mark of favour from the Emperor Ferdinand that he permitted Kepler to attach himself to the great Wallenstein, now Duke of Friedland, and a firm believer in Astrology. The Duke was a better paymaster than either of the three successive Emperors. He furnished Kepler with an assistant and a printing press; and obtained for him the Professorship of Astronomy at the University of Rostock in Mecklenburg. Apparently, however, the Emperor could not induce Wallenstein to take over the responsibility of the 8000 crowns, still owing from the Imperial treasury on account of the Rudolphine Tables. Kepler made a last attempt to secure payment at Ratisbon, but his journey thither brought disappointment and fatigue and left him in such a condition that he rapidly succumbed to an attack of fever, dying in November, 1630, in his fifty-ninth year. His body was buried at Ratisbon, but the tombstone was destroyed during the war then raging. His daughter, Susanna, the wife of Jacob Bartsch, a physician who had helped Kepler with his Ephemeris, lost her husband soon after her father's death, and succeeded in obtaining part of Kepler's arrears of salary by threatening to keep Tycho's manuscripts, but her stepmother was left almost penniless with five young children. For their benefit Louis Kepler printed a "Dream of Lunar Astronomy," which first his father and then his brother-in-law had been preparing for publication at the time of their respective deaths. It is a curious mixture of saga and fairy tale with a little science in the way of astronomy studied from the moon, and cast in the form of a dream to overcome the practical difficulties of the hypothesis of visiting the moon. Other writings in large numbers were left unpublished. No attempt at a complete edition of Kepler's works was made for a long time. One was projected in 1714 by his biographer, Hantsch, but all that appeared was one volume of letters. After various learned bodies had declined to move in the matter the manuscripts were purchased for the Imperial Russian library. An edition was at length brought out at Frankfort by C. Frisch, in eight volumes, appearing at intervals from 1858-1870.

Kepler's fame does not rest upon his voluminous works. With his peculiar method of approaching problems there was bound to be an inordinate amount of chaff mixed with the grain, and he used no winnowing machine. His simplicity and transparent honesty induced him to include everything, in fact he seemed to glory in the number of false trails he laboriously followed. He was one who might be expected to find the proverbial "needle in a haystack," but unfortunately the needle was not always there. Delambre says, "Ardent, restless, burning to distinguish himself by his discoveries he attempted everything, and having once obtained a glimpse of one, no labour was too hard for him in following or verifying it. All his attempts had not the same success, and in fact that was impossible. Those which have failed seem to us only fanciful; those which have been more fortunate appear sublime. When in search of that which really existed, he has sometimes found it; when he devoted himself to the pursuit of a chimera, he could not but fail, but even then he unfolded the same qualities, and that obstinate perseverance that must triumph over all difficulties but those which are insurmountable." Berry, in his "Short History of Astronomy," says "as one reads chapter after chapter without a lucid, still less a correct idea, it is impossible to refrain from regrets that the intelligence of Kepler should have been so wasted, and it is difficult not to suspect at times that some of the valuable results which lie embedded in this great mass of tedious speculation were arrived at by a mere accident. On the other hand it must not be forgotten that such accidents have a habit of happening only to great men, and that if Kepler loved to give reins to his imagination he was equally impressed with the necessity of scrupulously comparing speculative results with observed facts, and of surrendering without demur the most beloved of his fancies if it was unable to stand this test. If Kepler had burnt three-quarters of what he printed, we should in all probability have formed a higher opinion of his intellectual grasp and sobriety of judgment, but we should have lost to a great extent the impression of extraordinary enthusiasm and industry, and of almost unequalled intellectual honesty which we now get from a study of his works."

Professor Forbes is more enthusiastic. In his "History of Astronomy," he refers to Kepler as "the man whose place, as is generally agreed, would have been the most difficult to fill among all those who have contributed to the advance of astronomical knowledge," and again à propos of Kepler's great book, "it must be obvious that he had at that time some inkling of the meaning of his laws universal gravitation. From that moment the idea of universal gravitation was in the air, and hints and guesses were thrown out by many; and in time the law of gravitation would doubtless have been discovered, though probably not by the work of one man, even if Newton had not lived. But, if Kepler had not lived, who else could have discovered his Laws?"