The Man Who Changed The Epoch (But Not His Own Horoscope)

How does one century replace another? In the mind of a man 

For me, the first man who said goodbye to the irrational beliefs and replaced them with precise scientific explanations was Johannes Kepler.

‘Why Kepler?’ you would probably exclaim. ‘What about Copernicus, Aristarchus of Samos, and a host of others?!’

Let us search the answers to all whys together.

Despite the fact that I’m a huge fan of Johannes Kepler, I must acknowledge that he was not entirely free from all medieval ideas right from the start. Of course not! He was a human born in a certain century and belonged to it. For example he believed that the planets are attached to ideal spheres. And as we have five main liquids (just another medieval belief, don’t pay attention), he was sure that there are exactly five planets, no less, no more. And he started to search for the observations that would prove this belief. 

For some reason, he could not perform observations on a large scale himself. For what reason? Because observations always cost an arm and a leg. You must have equipment, telescopes, various measuring instruments, all that stuff. “So what?” you would probably ask. “How could it happen that The Great Kepler didn’t have all that?!” The point is that The Great Kepler was not so great at that time.
He was just a humble teacher of mathematics, who struggled with numerous life challenges. What challenges, you ask? Oh, he had many of them. For example, how not to be killed by Catholics when you are a Protestant living in Medieval Europe? What to do if the two out of your three children succumb to some unknown disease? How to rescue your mother if she is accused of witchcraft and is going to be executed on the stake? How to earn money? What’s your course of action if you are into astrology but your own prediction reveals that your wife and your last son would die because of a harsh illness and you will die as well, alone, starving and miserable?

Are you shocked with the details of Kepler’s life? I was! I imagined him in a clean quiet observatory surrounded with telescopes of the latest fashion and a crowd of helpful assistants. Oh, and a bunch of excited students of course! He was a teacher of mathematics after all. The students were probably honored by attending his lessons, weren’t they? 

They were not. Kepler, as a teacher, was a real disaster. Although he was an undoubted genius of math, he could not explain it in an understandable way. He mumbled and jumbled and there was even such a situation in a university where the students could apply to a certain teacher, that after the first year of his lectures no one applied and Johannes Kepler lost his job.

However, his fame as an outstanding theoretical mathematician gradually grew. And after years he received an invitation to work in an observatory he dreamt about. “Finally!” you will probably say at this moment. Some observatory, valuable equipment, obedient assistants, poised and reasonable colleagues. 

Far from this!…

The point is that it was not just “some” observatory. It was a famous Uranienborg. Famous for the outstanding observations made there as well as for its eccentric head Tycho Brahe. He was… He was… Let’s put it more mildly… He was raving alcoholic with a huge sword he used time after time. Moreover, he was a nobleman (mind that we are still in Medieval Ages) and he looked at the situation in an absolutely different way than Johannes Kepler did and you probably do. What colleagues, what assistants, dear Johannes? Forget that. I’m a noble Tycho from the house of Brahe. Hear my roar, so to say. My drunk roar to be precise. Do you want to be the smartest one? Not here, dear Johannes, not inside these walls built for the money of my noble ancestors. So here you have my precious observations and here you have my model of the Solar system. Shut up your mouth and put them together.

You don’t need to be a great astrologer to predict that this cooperation was short, bright, and full of conflicts.

It seems to me that in this stage of his life, Johannes Kepler was so humble and exhausted that he could take on anything. Except one thing. He could not reconcile Tycho’s observations with Tycho’s model, because the former was absolutely brilliant and the latter was pretty idiotic. With all those crystal spheres and the stars hammered to them, an ideally round orbit of Earth that for some reason crossed the orbits of Mercury, Venus, and Mars and so on.

Kepler objected, Brahe drank, and waved his sword. Finally, our noble guy had enough of that stubborn Kepler and just threw him away. After some time, he died. Rumors were that he was poisoned by his humble friend. Only recent research cleared Kepler’s good name, showing that if even Kepler had such evil plans, he would not have been able to carry them out because Tycho was initially poisoned by… yes. An amount of alcohol that was far, far above average. By the way, despite all the conflicts, Tycho Brahe left Kepler the results of all his precious observations after his death. 

After delving into that stormy life, I’m left with just one question. How? How did he manage to write the first science fiction book amidst all this chaos? Oh of course this book didn’t have a “!!sci-fi bestseller!!” label on its cover. There was no science fiction genre at that time. It was something brand new and very unusual. The novel Somnium recounted the story about a journey to the Moon. The protagonist’s mother engaged in a hanky-panky with the devil… What? Do you believe that just modern sci-fi can feature unusual twists? And the devil provided the protagonist with a vehicle for travelling to the Moon. Once there, on the Moon, he met local… people and had a lot of storming adventures. The novel was titled Somnium because the travel itself was undertaken within a dream (Hello, Christopher Nolan!)

Did people pay attention to the brand new genre? Oh yeah. Some of them did, especially those working for Holy Inquisition. They had no clue about sci-fi, literature itself, math and all those stars and telescopes. They just interpreted it literally. “Okay. The main hero uses ‘I’, ‘me’. This is obviously Johannes Kepler. Says that his Mom has a kind of unhealthy connection with the devil. What do we have for such situations, folks? Okay, let it be the stake.”

The real twist in this story was that Johannes Kepler managed to save his mother. I don’t know how he succeeded in the conversation with the inquisitors, but the fact remains: the death sentence was commuted to lifelong exile.

And Kepler himself? After all his great discoveries he spent his last years alone, without any community, any friends and… any job. He crafted horoscopes for the rich people to earn some money for a living. 

Don’t rush to accuse him of fraud. As his ominous horoscope for himself was fulfilled in the minor details…

What should I say in the end? After reading the story of Johannes Kepler I was left speechless. Let another scientist I absolutely adore sum up his life.

“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”

Marie Sklodowska-Curie

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