Wednesday 24 September 2014

Read in 2014 - 35: Kepler

Three book reviews in a row, maybe more to come, and nothing else on my blog? Don't worry, there will be other posts again. I have just been exceptionally busy this month, which meant more time to read - an apparent contradiction, but it is none if you consider that I read a lot on the train, and being busy at a customer's office means I travel there 5 or 6 days a week instead of just 3 days. So, normal business should soon be resumed!


You know my habit of feeding my brain with non-fiction every now and then, particularly needing something more substantial after I have been reading a book that was a bit on the shallow side (NOT referring to "The Headland" here!). 

“Kepler”, a biography by Walter W. Bryant and first published in 1920, certainly was substantial enough – even too substantial in those parts where the author (from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich) describes in much detail all the equations and theories Kepler and other astronomers before him worked out. I must admit I quick-read several chapters; I wasn’t overly interested in the exact mathematical formulas for each of the three Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motions, but much more in his life and in himself as a person.

(If you are scientifically minded and want to see what I mean, have a look at the wikipedia-article and then imagine having it all explained in mere text, without any of the illustrations.)

What I’d known about Johannes Kepler until now was precious little enough: He lived in the 16th and 17th century, was born in Weil der Stadt (a small town not very far from where I live) and worked as an astronomer, sometimes in close association with Tycho Brahe. With what I have learned from the book, a different picture emerges; that of a troubled man who was never really able to live off his scientific work, a man who had to deal with many problems and obstacles in both his personal and his professional life, and who most likely was never very happy during the 58 years of his life.

He married twice; his first wife and several of his children died of various illnesses, no doubt due not only to the not very hygienic circumstances people generally lived under at the time, but also because the family were poor and probably could not always afford good meals and what limited medical help would have been available. Because of his constant shortage of money (he was patronized by several high-standing persons, for instance the Austrian emperor Rudolf, but payment was irregular at best), he wrote and sold horoscopes on demand – something he hated, because he knew it to be unscientific and untrue. The political and religious changes of his times meant he frequently had to change post and move his family from places in Austria to Prague, to Denmark and Germany, and he even could have gone to Italy on invitation of Galileo Galilei, but declined the offer on the grounds of feeling it was unsafe.

To top all the problems coming from outside, he was physically weak and affected by vision problems due to having nearly died from smallpox as a child. Knowing all this, his great efforts in achieving something in the world of science seem even greater. Although his own knowledge was limited (for instance, Newton had not yet discovered the Law of Gravity), his work became crucial to the further development of astronomy.

Like I said, I had not known much about Kepler until reading this book. It was well worth it, because I now have a more complete picture of someone who did not give up easily in the face of adversities.

Not much can be found about the author with a superficial research; his name is listed several times in connection with various posts at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich for the years 1892 to 1923; apparently, he died in office as Superintendent of the Magnetical and Meteorological Department on 31 January 1923. He wrote other books and scientific articles, too, but little seems to have been recorded about himself.


  1. How interesting. I had not heard of him before. Reading your post heading catapulted me back in time, immediately remembering Kepler's Books in Menlo Park. It was named after a different Kepler and was an excellent bookstore, where we spent many hours. I was working in an esoteric bookstore just down the block at the time and often just walked over during my lunchtime. Right next to Kepler's Books was one of our other favorite hangouts - Cafe Borrone. I still sometimes think of their frosted mocha or their corn chowder. Thanks for the memories!! xoxo Silke

    1. The name Kepler always brings back some memories to me, too; my paternal grandfather used to live in a house on Keplerstr. in my home town. My Dad grew up in that house, and before my grandfather moved away to be nearer to one of his daughtrs, we went visiting there regularly. I still walk past that house often on my way home from work, and always think about what it was like back then.

  2. I would have skipped the equations too, it is only the person's story that I care about.
    I like the idea of you on the train and being able to read, that's wonderful! I remember reading "The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole" on the train in England in 1985 (showing my age) and laughing out loud, but when folks saw what I was reading, they understood.
    The trains in 1985 were much nicer than they are in 2014!!

    1. I LOVE Adrian Mole and have read all the books! The first one I read when I was a teenager myself, I think; my Mum recommended it to me. It must have been new then, so it was possibly around the year 1985, too.
      Using the time for reading is nearly the only thing I like about my trip to and from work. I do occasionally look out of the window, but most of the journey is through industrial estates or past very average houses, and of course I've seen it all so many times now, it only gets interesting when the seasons are changing (as they are doing right now).