September 20, 2017

Review: Kepler and the Universe by David Love

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One of the greatest and most tragic tales in the history of astronomy is the life of Johannes Kepler. And though many are familiar with the 16th-17th century scientist, mostly due to his laws of planetary motion, few know the story of Kepler the man.

And a great way to remedy that is to pick up a copy of Kepler and the Universe: How One Man Revolutionized Astronomy by David Love, out on November 10th, 2015 from Prometheus Books. Kepler and the Universe takes us beyond the laws that made Kepler famous and follows his life and travails across a war-torn Europe. The tribulations of the Protestant reformation rocked the continent, and Kepler was not immune to the issues of the day.

Kepler and the Universe explores how he came to his key insights concerning the motions of the planets, as well as many of the pitfalls and fallacies he faced along the way. Kepler could be said to have been the first modern astronomer, as well as the last of the classical astrologers, occupying a unique position in history. Keep in mind, Kepler formulated his three laws of planetary motion before Isaac Newton explained just how gravity worked with his own landmark insights. If Newton is the father of modern classical physics, then Kepler is the family of modern computational astronomy.

Of course, Kepler himself hated the idea that planets moved in ellipses, and not neat tidy circles. He always considered his insight on geometrical perfect solids versus the number of planets (known then only out to Saturn at the time) as his greatest achievement, though he failed to make this connection work.

Kepler and the Universe follows Keplerís life from his teaching days in Graz to his frustrations eking out observational data on the planets from Tycho Brahe at Uraniborg in Denmark, to his exploits in Prague. †In 1610, the advent of the telescope and its use by Galileo intrigued Kepler, enough to procure an instrument of his own. The book also delves into Keplerís own astronomical observations, something thatís often missed looking at his legacy. Kepler made marked improvements of the design of Galileoís primitive refracting telescope, and also published extensive treatises on light and optics. We thought it interesting how astronomers such as Kepler and Galileo communicated with each other via Latin anagrams. While Kepler unscrambled most of these successfully, some he got gloriously wrong, such as Galileoís take on the ringed planet: †ĎI have observed the highest planet (meaning Saturn) in triplet form,í which Kepler read as, ĎHail flaming twins, off-spring of Mars.í

Kepler also observed the supernova of 1604, the last naked eye supernova in our galaxy.

Then thereís Kepler the family man, defending his mother against accusations of witchcraft and fleeing the ravages of the Thirty Years War. Keplerís frustrations attempting to reconcile astrology, geometry and observational astronomy mustíve only been matched with his personal trials of attempting to survive one of the most troublesome periods of European history.

Be sure to read Kepler and the Universe for a fascinating look at the life and times of a familiar astronomical figure.

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