Born: 27 Dec 1571 in Weil der Stadt, Wьrttemberg, Holy Roman Empire (now Germany)
Died: 15 Nov 1630 in Regensburg (now in Germany)
Johannes Kepler is now chiefly remembered for discovering the three laws of planetary motion that bear his name published in 1609 and 1619). He also did important work in optics (1604, 1611), discovered two new regular polyhedra (1619), gave the first mathematical treatment of close packing of equal spheres (leading to an explanation of the shape of the cells of a honeycomb, 1611), gave the first proof of how logarithms worked (1624), and devised a method of finding the volumes of solids of revolution that (with hindsight!) can be seen as contributing to the development of calculus (1615, 1616). Moreover, he calculated the most exact astronomical tables hitherto known, whose continued accuracy did much to establish the truth of heliocentric astronomy (Rudolphine Tables, Ulm, 1627).
A large quantity of Kepler's correspondence survives. Many of his letters are almost the equivalent of a scientific paper (there were as yet no scientific journals), and correspondents seem to have kept them because they were interesting. In consequence, we know rather a lot about Kepler's life, and indeed about his character. It is partly because of this that Kepler has had something of a career as a more or less fictional character (see historiographic note).
Kepler was born in the small town of Weil der Stadt in Swabia and moved to
nearby Leonberg with his parents in 1576. His father was a mercenary soldier and his mother the daughter of an innkeeper. Johannes was their first child. His father left home for the last time when Johannes was five, and is believed to have died in the war in the Netherlands. As a child, Kepler lived with his mother in his grandfather's inn. He tells us that he used to help by serving in the inn. One imagines customers were sometimes bemused by the child's unusual competence at arithmetic.
Kepler's early education was in a local school and then at a nearby seminary, from which, intending to be ordained, he went on to enrol at the University of Tьbingen, then (as now) a bastion of Lutheran orthodoxy.
Throughout his life, Kepler was a profoundly religious man. All his writings contain numerous references to God, and he saw his work as a fulfilment of his Christian duty to understand the works of God. Man being, as Kepler believed, made in the image of God, was clearly capable of understanding the Universe that He had created. Moreover, Kepler was convinced that God had made the Universe according to a mathematical plan (a belief found in the works of Plato and associated with Pythagoras). Since it was generally accepted at the time that mathematics provided a secure method of arriving at truths about the world ( Euclid's common notions and postulates being regarded as actually true), we have here a strategy for understanding the Universe. Since some authors have given Kepler a name for irrationality, it is worth noting that this rather hopeful epistemology is very far indeed from the mystic's conviction that things can only be understood in an imprecise way that relies upon insights that are not subject to reason. Kepler does indeed repeatedly thank God for granting him insights, but the insights are presented as rational.
At this time, it was usual for all students at a university to attend courses on "mathematics". In principle this included the four mathematical sciences: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. It seems, however, that what was taught depended on the particular university. At Tьbingen Kepler was taught astronomy by one of the leading astronomers of the day, Michael Maestlin (1550 - 1631). The astronomy of the curriculum was, of course, geocentric astronomy, that is the current version of the Ptolemaic system, in which all seven planets - Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn - moved round the Earth, their positions against the fixed stars being calculated by combining circular motions. This system was more or less in accord with current (Aristotelian) notions of physics, though there were certain difficulties, such as whether one might consider as 'uniform' (and therefore acceptable as obviously eternal) a circular motion that was not uniform about its own centre but about another point (called an 'equant'). However, it seems that on the whole astronomers (who saw themselves as 'mathematicians') were content to carry on calculating positions of planets and leave it to natural philosophers to worry about whether the mathematical models corresponded to physical mechanisms. Kepler did not take this attitude. His earliest published work (1596) proposes to consider the actual paths of the planets, not the circles used to construct them.
At Tьbingen, Kepler studied not only mathematics but also Greek and Hebrew (both necessary for reading the scriptures in their original languages). Teaching was in Latin. At the end of his first year Kepler got 'A's for everything except mathematics. Probably Maestlin was trying to tell him he could do better, because Kepler was in fact one of the select pupils to whom he chose to teach more advanced astronomy by introducing them to the new, heliocentric cosmological system of Copernicus. It was from Maestlin that Kepler learned that the preface to On the revolutions, explaining that this was 'only mathematics', was not by Copernicus. Kepler seems to have accepted almost instantly that the Copernican system was physically true; his reasons for accepting it will be discussed in connection with his first cosmological model (see below).
It seems that even in Kepler's student days there were indications that his religious beliefs were not entirely in accord with the orthodox Lutheranism current in Tьbingen and formulated in the 'Augsburg Confession' (Confessio Augustana). Kepler's problems with this Protestant orthodoxy concerned the supposed relation between matter and 'spirit' (a non-material entity) in the doctrine of the Eucharist. This ties up with Kepler's astronomy to the extent that he apparently found somewhat similar intellectual difficulties in explaining how 'force' from the Sun could affect the planets. In his writings, Kepler is given to laying his opinions on the line - which is very convenient for historians. In real life, it seems likely that a similar tendency to openness led the authorities at Tьbingen to entertain well-founded doubts about his religious orthodoxy. These may explain why Maestlin persuaded Kepler to abandon plans for ordination and instead take up a post teaching mathematics in Graz. Religious intolerance sharpened in the following years. Kepler was excommunicated in 1612. This caused him much pain, but despite his (by then) relatively high social standing, as Imperial Mathematician, he never succeeded in getting the ban lifted.
Kepler's first cosmological model (1596)
Instead of the seven planets in standard geocentric astronomy the Copernican system had only six, the Moon having become a body of kind previously unknown to astronomy, which Kepler was later to call a 'satellite' (a name he coined in 1610 to describe the moons that Galileo had discovered were orbiting Jupiter, literally meaning 'attendant'). Why six planets?
Moreover, in geocentric astronomy there was no way of using observations to find the relative sizes of the planetary orbs; they were simply assumed to be in contact. This seemed to require no explanation, since it fitted nicely with natural philosophers' belief that the whole system was turned from the movement of the outermost sphere, one (or maybe two) beyond the sphere of the 'fixed' stars (the ones whose pattern made the constellations), beyond the sphere of Saturn. In the Copernican system, the fact that the annual component of each planetary motion was a reflection of the annual motion of the Earth allowed one to use observations to calculate the size of each planet's path, and it turned out that there were huge spaces between the planets. Why these particular spaces?
Kepler's answer to these questions, described in his Mystery of the Cosmos (Mysterium cosmographicum, Tьbingen, 1596), looks bizarre to twentieth-century readers (see the figure on the right). He suggested that if a sphere were drawn to touch the inside of the path of Saturn, and a cube were inscribed in the sphere, then the sphere inscribed in that cube would be the sphere circumscribing the path of Jupiter. Then if a regular tetrahedron were drawn in the sphere inscribing the path of Jupiter, the insphere of the tetrahedron would be the sphere circumscribing the path of Mars, and so inwards, putting the regular dodecahedron between Mars and Earth, the regular icosahedron between Earth and Venus, and the regular octahedron between Venus and Mercury. This explains the number of planets perfectly: there are only five convex regular solids (as is proved in Euclid's Elements , Book 13). It also gives a convincing fit with the sizes of the paths as deduced by Copernicus, the greatest error being less than 10% (which is spectacularly good for a cosmological model even now). Kepler did not express himself in terms of percentage errors, and his is in fact the first mathematical cosmological model, but it is easy to see why he believed that the observational evidence supported his theory.
Kepler saw his cosmological theory as providing evidence for the Copernican theory. Before presenting his own theory he gave arguments to establish the pla