The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World - Edward Dolnick (2011)

Part II. Hope and Monsters

Chapter 26. Walrus with a Golden Nose

From the start Kepler’s faith that God was a mathematician both impeded him and spurred him. First his faith lured him into devoting years to his Platonic pipe dream; when that dream dissolved it motivated him to search elsewhere, in the certain knowledge that there had to be some mathematical pattern that explained the solar system. Through all his years of searching, Kepler’s fascination was less with the objects in the sky—the sun, stars, and planets—than with the relationships among them. Not the things but the patterns. “Would that God deliver me from astronomy,” Kepler once wrote, “so I can devote all my time to my work on harmonies.”

In time that work would yield many patterns, a few of them among the highest achievements of human thought but most of them nearly inexplicable to modern readers. When Kepler finally abandoned his elaborate geometric model of the planets, for instance, he replaced it with an equally arcane model based on music. This new search for “harmonies” built on Pythagoras’s age-old insight about strings of different lengths producing notes of different pitch. Kepler’s notion was that the planets in their various orbits, traveling at different speeds, corresponded to different musical notes, and “the heavenly motions are nothing but a continuous song for several voices (perceived by the intellect, not by the ear).”34

Kepler’s new system, with its sopranos and tenors and basses, was as farfetched as its predecessor, with its cubes and pyramids and dodecahedrons. As it turned out, neither model had anything to do with reality. But in the course of his obsessive, misguided quest to prove the truth of his theories, Kepler did make genuine, epochal discoveries. Scientists would eventually dub three of these “Kepler’s laws,” though Kepler never gave them that name nor deemed them any more praiseworthy than his other finds.35

Late in his life, when he looked back over his career, Kepler himself could scarcely pick out his breakthroughs from the mathematical fantasies that surrounded them. “My brain gets tired when I try to understand what I wrote,” he said later, “and I find it hard to rediscover the connection between the figures and the text, that I established myself.”

Kepler was one of the most daring, insightful thinkers who ever lived, but his career only took off when he joined forces with an astronomer who was his opposite in almost every respect. Kepler was poor and lean, a creature of ribs and patches. Tycho Brahe was rich beyond measure. Kepler was shy and ascetic, Tycho hard-drinking and rowdy. Kepler was imaginative and creative, sometimes alarmingly so, Tycho a brilliant observer but a run-of-the-mill theoretician. But the two great astronomers needed one another.

Tycho36 was a Danish nobleman with a private observatory on a private island. The most eminent astronomer of the generation before Kepler and Galileo, it was Tycho who had startled the world in 1572 by proving that the new star that had somehow materialized in the sky truly was a star. Nothing about Tycho was run-of-the-mill. Round, bald, sumptuously dressed, he looked like Humpty Dumpty with a walrus mustache and a velvet cloak. He ruled his mini-kingdom like a mini-king, presiding over lavish banquets and cackling over the antics of his court jester, a dwarf named Jepp.

In his student days, Tycho had lost part of his nose in a swordfight. In one version of the story, the trouble started at a wedding celebration when another wealthy young Dane reminded everyone of some odd events from a few months before. Tycho had announced with great fanfare, in a poem written in elegant Latin flourishes, that a recent eclipse of the moon foretold the death of the Turkish sultan. But, it turned out, the sultan had died six months before the eclipse. Tycho’s rival told the story with gusto, and nearly all his listeners enjoyed it. Not Tycho. The retelling of the story led to bad blood and, soon after, a duel. Tycho nearly lost his life and did lose a chunk of his nose. For the rest of his life he sported a replacement made of gold and silver.

Despite the bluster and showmanship, Tycho was a genuine scholar. His observatory was the best in Europe, outfitted with a dazzling array of precision-made sextants, quadrants, and other devices for pinpointing the positions of stars. The observatory stood in a grand, turreted castle that boasted fourteen fireplaces and an astonishing luxury, running water. In Tycho’s library stood a celestial globe five feet in diameter and made of brass; when a star’s position was established beyond a doubt, a new dot was carefully added to the globe. Tycho boasted that his observatory had cost a ton of gold, and Kepler complained that “any single instrument cost more than my and my whole family’s fortune put together.”

Kepler had sent his Mystery of the Universe to Tycho and all the other eminent scientists he could think of. Many could not fathom what he was up to. Tycho, more mystically minded than Galileo and some of the other skeptics, replied enthusiastically and soon took Kepler on as his assistant. It was an arrangement with obvious benefits for both men. Tycho had devised a hybrid model of the solar system, partway between the ancient Earth-centered model and Copernicus’ sun-centered version. In this picture, the sun and moon orbited the Earth, and the five other planets orbited the sun. Tycho had compiled reams of scrupulously accurate observations, but without Kepler’s mathematical help he could not demonstrate the truth of his hybrid model. Kepler had no interest in Tycho’s model, but in order to make progress on his own theories he desperately needed Tycho’s records.

But Tycho hoarded them. Torn between hope that the younger man could find patterns hidden within twenty years’ worth of figures and fear that he was giving away his treasure, Tycho clung to his numbers with a miser’s grip. Kepler snarled helplessly. And then, out of the blue, Tycho died. (He died of a bladder infection brought on, according to Kepler, by drinking too much at a banquet and refusing to leave the table to pee.) Kepler had been with Tycho only eighteen months, but now he had what he needed. “I was in possession of the observations,” Kepler noted contentedly, “and refused to hand them over to the heirs.”