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Review: Kepler and the Universe

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Kepler and the Universe: How One Man Revolutionized Astronomy
by David K. Love
Prometheus Books, 2015
hardcover, 253 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-63388-106-8

Johannes Kepler is remembered as one of the key figures in astronomy four centuries ago, primarily for his work refining out knowledge of planetary motion and showing how the Sun, and not the Earth, was at the center of the solar system. He’s remembers to this day for his three laws of planetary motion, and was enough of a figure in the annals of astronomy that NASA named a mission after him, a spacecraft that astronomers have used to discover thousand of planets around other stars.

Less well known, though, is Kepler the person, versus Kepler the historical astronomical figure. Kepler and the Universe, by Royal Astronomical Society member David Love, remedies that by examining both the person and his accomplishments. While certainly not the first biography of Kepler, this book provides a relatively concise and accessible examination of Kepler.

“It was a truly beautiful idea and the inspiration behind all his later work. Yet it was utterly and completely wrong.”

Kepler, an intelligent but sickly child, went to school with plans to become a Lutheran clergyman. But before he could finish his degree, he was assigned to another university as a math teacher, perhaps in part because of his interest in Copernicus and in Calvinism, both of which were frowned upon by Lutheran leaders. This set him on a path of being an itinerant scholar, moving from place to place throughout central Europe for the rest of his career, sometimes looking for funding or opportunities, other times being chased by the region’s religious strife and wars.

Kepler was inspired to pursue the research that would make him famous because, Love recalls, of a mistaken idea. While teaching a class, he saw a pattern of triangles inscribed between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. This led him to develop a model of the solar system where five perfect solids were placed between the orbits of the six known planets, which in turn led him to his discoveries of planetary motion—even though that model was terribly wrong.

“This was is big idea. The idea was to be central in guiding him for the rest of his highly productive life and was one he never abandoned,” Love writes. “It was a truly beautiful idea and the inspiration behind all his later work. Yet it was utterly and completely wrong.”

Love follows that later work, including Kepler’s work with Tycho Brahe, who had the detailed observations Kepler needed for his models. The book is a mix of both Kepler’s scientific work and his life story, with enough explanation about the former to help those with little background in astronomy, and enough details about the latter to interest for those already familiar with Kepler’s scientific contributions.

At a little over 200 pages, plus endnotes and references, Kepler and the Universe is a compact and interesting story about Kepler the man, and Kepler the historical scientific figure. The book provides a reminder of the fallacies at the heart of every person, even major historical figures, and how even faulty ideas, like his vision of perfect solids explaining the arrangement of the solar system, can serve as the inspiration for great advances in knowledge.