Sunday, January 06, 2008

Johannes Kepler

Johannes KeplerJohannes Kepler German mathematician and optician. Copy of a lost original of 1610 in the Benedictine monastery in Krems.

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Johannes Kepler: His Life, His Laws and Times

Johannes Kepler was born at 2:30 PM on December 27, 1571, in Weil der Stadt, Württemburg, in the Holy Roman Empire of German Nationality. He was a sickly child and his parents were poor. But his evident intelligence earned him a scholarship to the University of Tübingen to study for the Lutheran ministry. There he was introduced to the ideas of Copernicus and delighted in them. In 1596, while a mathematics teacher in Graz, he wrote the first outspoken defense of the Copernican system, the Mysterium Cosmographicum.

Kepler's family was Lutheran and he adhered to the Augsburg Confession a defining document for Lutheranism. However, he did not adhere to the Lutheran position on the real presence and refused to sign the Formula of Concord. Because of his refusal he was excluded from the sacrament in the Lutheran church. This and his refusal to convert to Catholicism left him alienated by both the Lutherans and the Catholics. Thus he had no refuge during the Thirty-Years War.

Kepler was forced to leave his teaching post at Graz due to the counter Reformation because he was Lutheran and moved to Prague to work with the renowned Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe. He inherited Tycho's post as Imperial Mathematician when Tycho died in 1601. Using the precise data that Tycho had collected, Kepler discovered that the orbit of Mars was an ellipse. In 1609 he published Astronomia Nova, delineating his discoveries, which are now called Kepler's first two laws of planetary motion. And what is just as important about this work, "it is the first published account wherein a scientist documents how he has coped with the multitude of imperfect data to forge a theory of surpassing accuracy" (O. Gingerich in forward to Johannes Kepler New Astronomy translated by W. Donahue, Cambridge Univ Press, 1992), a fundamental law of nature. Today we call this the scientific method.

In 1612 Lutherans were forced out of Prague, so Kepler moved on to Linz. His wife and two sons had recently died. He remarried happily, but had many personal and financial troubles. Two infant daughters died and Kepler had to return to Württemburg where he successfully defended his mother against charges of witchcraft. In 1619 he published Harmonices Mundi, in which he describes his "third law."

In spite of more forced relocations, Kepler published the seven-volume Epitome Astronomiae in 1621. This was his most influential work and discussed all of heliocentric astronomy in a systematic way. He then went on to complete the Rudolphine Tables that Tycho had started long ago. These included calculations using logarithms, which he developed, and provided perpetual tables for calculating planetary positions for any past or future date. Kepler used the tables to predict a pair of transits by Mercury and Venus of the Sun, although he did not live to witness the events.

Johannes Kepler died in Regensburg in 1630, while on a journey from his home in Sagan to collect a debt. His grave was demolished within two years because of the Thirty Years War. Frail of body, but robust in mind and spirit, Kepler was scrupulously honest to the data. Johannes Kepler: His Life, His Laws and Times

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