Renaissance Duo Symbiotically Mapped Paths to the Planets

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 13, 2003 | Go to article overview

Renaissance Duo Symbiotically Mapped Paths to the Planets


Byline: Raymond L. Petersen, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In "The Merchant of Venice," Lorenzo observes to Jessica and Launcelot, "Here we sit, and let the sounds of music/ Creep into our ears: soft stillness and the night/ Become the touches of sweet harmony."

When William Shakespeare wrote those lines in the mid-1590s, during the lull between the 1555 Peace of Augsburg that had brought one period of bitter religious strife to an end and the onset of the Thirty Years War in 1618, the search for harmony was understandably a big concern of Europe's intellectuals.

It appeared in the era's literature and music - Shakespeare's lines are but one example, and he calls harmony "sweet" - and it spilled over into science and mathematics, both soon to undergo vast change. Among the bright figures of this extraordinary period two Lutherans, the Danish high aristocrat Tyco Brahe (1546-1601) and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), the son of a dysfunctional German family, stand out as a pair who together help define what the new age of science was to become.

Tycho Brahe was an empiricist obsessed with precise measurements and accurate data. The theorist Kepler was the kind of man who could analyze Brahe's findings and turn them into a theory about planetary motion that helped undermine old ways of looking at the solar system.

Their quest for cosmic order - and a scientifically harmonious way to make sense of the world around them are the subject of Kitty Ferguson's double biography, "Tycho & Kepler," whose subtitle sums up the theme of the book: "The Unlikely Partnership That Forever Changed Our Understanding of the Heavens."

Ms. Ferguson traces the lives and peregrinations of these two early modern scientists across northern and middle Europe to the point where their lives first intersect. They meet in Prague in 1599 at the court of the Catholic and reclusive Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, who was fond of keeping up with what was happening in the arts and sciences.

From their meeting intellectual fireworks quickly flowed. Tycho needed a theory to cap his life's work and make sense of his compendium of precise observations on planetary motion. As Ms. Ferguson shows, he recognized Kepler's theoretical genius, but at the same time resented it, fearing that Kepler would intellectually outclass him and that ultimately history would relegate him to a footnote as the man who did nothing more than supply the footnotes to the great scientist - Kepler - who was able to make sense of them.

Kepler wanted the notebooks badly, according to Ms. Ferguson, and was frustrated and exasperated by Tycho's reluctance to hand them over. But then fate intervened, forever changing the history of science. Brahe attended a banquet at Rudolph's court and submitting to courtly etiquette remained at table until the Emperor left, even though he had great need to relieve himself.

In what must have been a most painful moment, his bladder burst. On his deathbed, Tycho gave Kepler the notebooks with this exhortation: "Let me not seem to have lived in vain." It was a request Kepler kept. Out of that rich material the syncretic Kepler derived his three laws of planetary motion. Those three laws set the Copernican heliocentric cosmology on a sound mathematical foundation and served as an essential preamble to Newton's theory of universal gravitation.

Ms. Ferguson's book is peppered with interesting facts that make "Tycho and Kepler" real for readers, rather than nothing more than actors in an abstract world called the history of science.

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