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Astronomy, Race, and the Unwitnessed Radiance Inside History’s Blind Spots

A poetic instrument for observing and redrawing the spectrum of privilege and possibility.

Astronomy, Race, and the Unwitnessed Radiance Inside History’s Blind Spots

In 1977, the poet Adrienne Rich exhorted a graduating class of young women to think of education not as something one receives but as something one claims. But what does an education mean, and what does claiming it look like, for lives and minds animating bodies born into dramatically different points along the vast spectrum of privilege and possibility which human society spans?

This question comes alive in a wonderfully unexpected and necessary way in one of the highlights of the the third annual Universe in Verse by another great poet, essayist, and almost unbearably moving memoirist: Elizabeth Alexander — the fourth poet in history read at an American presidential inauguration (she welcomed Barack Obama to the presidency with her shimmering poem “Praise Song for the Day”) and the first woman of color to preside over one of the world’s largest philanthropic foundations.

Two years after Alexander illuminated a disquieting shadow-patch excised from the hegemonic history of science with the stunning poem she read at the inaugural Universe in Verse, she returned to the stage to shine a beam of radiance on the beauty hidden in an umbral corner of the selective collective memory we call history. Following astrophysicist Janna Levin’s opening reading of a pair of short poems by two titanic contemporaries who never knew of each other’s existence — a short untitled exultation at the surreality of a solar eclipse by Emily Dickinson and “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman — Alexander read a poetic antidote to history’s erasures, celebrating the invisible visionaries who also lived and marveled at the cosmos when Dickinson and Whitman lived and marveled at the cosmos, originally published in her collection American Sublime (public library) and prefaced in the show with some contextual connective tissue by yours truly:

EDUCATION
by Elizabeth Alexander

In 1839, to enter University,
the Yale men already knew Cicero,

Dalzel’s Graeca Minora, then learned more Latin prosody,
Stiles on astronomy, Dana’s mineralogy.

Each year they named a Class Bully
who would butt heads with sailors in town.

“The first foreign heathen ever seen,”
Obookiah, arrived from Hawaii in ’09.

The most powerful telescope in America
was a recent gift to the school

and through it, they were first to see
the blazing return of Halley’s comet.

Ebeneezer Peter Mason
and Hamilton Lanphere Smith

spent all their free time at the instrument
observing the stars, their systems,

their movement and science and magic,
pondering the logic of mysteries that twinkle.

Some forty years before, Banneker’s
eclipse-predicting charts and almanacs

had gone to Thomas Jefferson
to prove “that nature has given our brethren

talents equal to other colors of men.”
Benjamin Banneker, born free,

whose people came from Guinea,
who taught himself at twenty-two (the same age

as the graduates) to carve entirely from wood
a watch which kept exquisite time,

accurate to the blade-sharp second.

Living in the same era as these astronomically enchanted men, whom Alexander so beautifully declipses from history’s shadow, was a young woman who blazed parallel trails for another section of humanity barred from higher education and discounted by the scientific establishment, and who would go on to stake her life on the conviction that equal opportunity for the life of the mind is at the center of social change.

Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) — to whom the inaugural Universe in Verse was dedicated and whose life furnished the initial inspiration for Figuring (from which this portion of the essay is adapted) — was twelve when she observed her first solar eclipse through a brass telescope set up in the front parlor of her modest Quaker home on the island of Nantucket. The cosmos, with its mystery governed by immutable laws of poetic precision, staggered her imagination. By fifteen, she had mastered higher mathematics, which she supplemented with an ardent love of poetry. No institution — not on the island, not on the globe — had anything further to offer her in the way of higher education for a woman. And so, at seventeen, she founded a small school of her own.

The first children who approached the teenage teacher for enrollment were three “Portuguese” girls — the era’s slang for immigrants of color, whatever their actual nationality or race. Having just witnessed a vehement outcry when the Nantucket’s public school had attempted integration the previous year, Mitchell knew that admitting students of color would cost her the support of many parents, particularly the wealthy. But when the little girl representing the trio implored for a chance to learn, Mitchell made a decision with a clarity of conviction that would come to mark her life. The three “Portuguese” children became her first scholars, soon joined by others ranging in age from six to fourteen.

The young Maria Mitchell’s telescope. (Maria Mitchell Museum. Photograph by Maria Popova)

In a single large classroom, Mitchell stretched her students’ minds from Shakespeare to spherical geometry. But before she could savor the success of her school, she was offered the head librarianship of the Nantucket Atheneum — a new kind of cultural institution, named after the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom, learning, and the arts, designed as a secular gathering place to discover and discuss ideas. She was eighteen. She would not relinquish her librarianship for two decades, despite the international celebrity into which her historic comet discovery catapulted her at the end of her twenties; despite her landmark admission into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as the venerable institution’s first female member; despite becoming the first woman employed by the federal government for a “specialized non-domestic skill” as a “computer of Venus” — a one-person GPS performing complex celestial calculations to help sailors navigate the globe.

During her tenure at the Atheneum, Mitchell hosted the institution’s regular public lectures by itinerant speakers. Among them was a young man who had escaped slavery three years earlier.

Frederick Douglass

One August day in 1841, a nervous twenty-three-year-old Frederick Douglass — the same age as Mitchell — took the podium at the Atheneum to deliver his very first public address before the mixed-race audience of five hundred gathered at the island’s temple of learning for the first Nantucket Anti-Slavery Convention. “It was with the utmost difficulty,” Douglass would later recount, “that I could stand erect, or that I could command and articulate two words without hesitation and stammering. I trembled in every limb.” He proceeded to deliver a speech so electrifying that at its conclusion, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who was waiting to take the platform next, leapt to his feet, turned to the audience, and exclaimed: “Have we been listening to a thing, a piece of property, or a man?” The chamber of the Great Hall bellowed with a resounding “A man! A man!” The man was hired on the spot as full-time lecturer for Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society.

Four years later, by then one of the country’s most prominent public speakers, Douglass would write in his autobiography:

I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence. From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace.

Maria Mitchell echoed this sentiment in her own diary as she was doing for women what Douglass was doing for African Americans:

The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not.

Mitchell and Douglass cherished their friendship for the remainder of their parallel pioneering lives — both world-famous before they were thirty, both liberators of possibility in their present, both role models of courage and tenacity for generations to come. The year Mitchell made her historic discovery of the world’s first telescopic comet, Douglass — who in that trembling dawn of his career had calmed his nerves by taking in the cosmic perspective through her telescope — began publishing his abolitionist newspaper; he titled it The North Star in homage to the key role astronomy played in the Underground Railroad — traveling at night, slaves were told to keep the river on one side and follow the Drinking Gourd, an African name for the Big Dipper, for if they kept after the pole star, they would keep themselves moving north. In the final year of hers, the ailing Mitchell — whose childhood home had been a stop on the Underground Railroad — exerted herself to travel many miles via ferry, coach, and train for a reception given in her cherished friend’s honor.

Full recordings of the first three seasons of The Universe in Verse — a celebration of the meeting ground between science and the human spirit through the lens of poetry — are freely available to be enjoyed here.

BP

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Walt Whitman’s Stunning Serenade to Our Interlaced Lives Across Space and Time

“It avails not, time nor place… What is it then between us?… It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, the dark threw its patches down upon me also.”

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Walt Whitman’s Stunning Serenade to Our Interlaced Lives Across Space and Time

How few artists are not merely the sensemaking vessel for the tumult of their times, not even the deck railing of assurance onto which the passengers steady themselves, but the horizon that remains for other ships long after this one has reached safe harbor, or has sunk — the horizon whose steadfast line orients generation after generation, yet goes on shifting as each epoch advances toward new vistas of truth and possibility.

Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) was among those rare few. The century and a half between his time and ours has been scarred by pandemics and pandemoniums, hallowed by staggering triumphs of the humanistic, scientific, and artistic imagination. We made Earth less habitable with two World Wars and discovered 4,000 potentially habitable worlds outside the Solar System. We gave all races and genders the ballot, and invented new ways of revoking human dignity and belonging. We beheld the structure of life in a double helix and the shape of civilizational shame in a mushroom cloud. We heard Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, and the sound of spacetime. But the most remarkable thing about it all, the most human and humanizing thing, is the awareness of this we as atomized into millions of individual I’s who have lived and loved and lost and made art and music and mathematics through it all.

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

Whitman understood and celebrated this intricate tessellation of being, not only across society — “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” — but across space and time, nowhere more splendidly than in his sweeping, horizonless masterpiece “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” — a poem that opens up a liminal space where past, present, and future tunnel into one another, a cave of forgotten and remembered dreams that invites you to press your outstretched living fingers into the palm-print of the dead, into Whitman’s generous open hand, and in doing so effects, to borrow Iris Murdoch’s marvelous phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”

At a special miniature edition of The Universe in Verse on Governors Island, devoted to Whitman’s enchantment with science, astrophysicist Janna Levin — an enchantress of poetry, a writer of uncommonly poetic prose, and co-founder of the Whitman-inspired endeavor to build New York’s first public observatory — reanimated an excerpt from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in a gorgeous reading emanating the elusive elemental truth Whitman so elegantly makes graspable in the poem.

from “CROSSING BROOKLYN FERRY”
by Walt Whitman

Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west — sun there half an hour high — I see you also face to face.

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,
The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme,
The similitudes of the past and those of the future.

[…]

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

It avails not, time nor place — distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried.

[…]

What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Whatever it is, it avails not — distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me

[…]

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,
I am he who knew what it was to be evil,
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting,
Was one with the rest, the days and haps of the rest,
Was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word,
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,

Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small.

For other highlights from the first three years of The Universe in Verse, as we labor on a virtual show amid the strangeness of this de-atomized season of body and spirit, savor Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson and his feminist poem about the history of science, Marie Howe reading her tribute to Stephen Hawking, Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson, and Neri Oxman reading Whitman, then revisit Whitman on optimism as a mighty force of resistance, women’s centrality to democracy, how to keep criticism from sinking your soul, and what makes life worth living.

BP

Life, Death, Chance, and Freeman Dyson

“These matters are in the hands of a blind fate whose decrees it is perhaps well that we cannot foresee.”

Life, Death, Chance, and Freeman Dyson

In her stunning “Hymn to Time,” Ursula K. Le Guin observed how death and chance course through “space and the radiance of each bright galaxy,” through our “eyes beholding radiance” — death and chance meaning death and life, for each of us is a wonder of improbability made by an immense Rube Goldberg machine of chance: If the Big Bang had churned out just a little more antimatter than matter, if the ratio of hydrogen and helium in the baby universe had been only a little bit different, if our Pale Blue Dot had snapped into orbit just a little bit closer to or farther from our life-warming home star, if the ratio of mutual attraction had been just a little bit different when your parents crossed orbits, if they had put on a different record and cross-pollinated gene pools on a different night, you would not exist. As the physicist Brian Greene put it in his poetic inquiry into what gives meaning to our ephemeral lives in an impartial universe, “by the grace of random chance, funneled through nature’s laws, we are here.”

Most of us, if at all aware of the glorious accident we experience as our own existence, are only dimly aware of it and only as an abstraction. Not so for the great physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson (December 15, 1923–February 28, 2020) — one of the vastest scientific minds of the past century, and one of the most humanistic.

Freeman Dyson, aged 11, with his sister, Alice. (Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Dyson family.)

When Dyson’s father — the English composer George Dyson — was a young music teacher, his closest friend — a lanky classicist who taught at the same school — was drafted into the British army during WWI and sent to fight in Paris. One day, this exceedingly tall young man stuck his head to look out from the trench. A German sniper killed him instantly. His sister, with whom he’d been incredibly close, was grief-stricken. So was his best friend. The grief brought the two together. A year after his death, they were married. When they had their first child, they named him for the slain hero: Freeman. Freeman Dyson lived out his entire life — a life of nearly a century, a life that lived through humanity’s darkest hour and through some of our most dazzling triumphs: the discovery of the double helix, the Moon landing, the birth of the Internet, the detection of gravitational waves, the signing of the Paris Agreement — never losing sight of the double-edged sword of chance that had made his own life possible by his uncle’s death. It informed his entire personal cosmogony, as a scientist and a humanist. Viewed in this light, this light of ultimate lucidity, all of our conflicts and combats — international or interpersonal — appear not only unnatural but anti-natural, foolish squanderings of the brief and improbable life that chance has dealt us, vandalized verses from the sacred poetry that is the book of nature.

Upon receiving the heart-sinking news of Freeman Dyson’s death, I expressed my condolences to his son — the science historian and splendid writer George Dyson, named for his grandfather. He responded with the above photograph from the family archives — a charming embodiment of the playfulness and free-spirited good nature that endowed Freeman Dyson’s brilliant mind with such coruscating creativity. When I remarked that something so utterly delightful — both the captured moment and the whole existence of the man — should be the product of chance in the shape of a bullet, he sent me a letter, found in an abandoned family trunk and shared here with his kind permission, which his grandfather had written to another friend fighting in the trenches of France, also a classicist — one who would, unlike the slain Freeman Atkey, survive to become an eminent Dante scholar.

In the hindsight of history, both Dyson’s personal history and our cultural history, the letter staggers the imagination with its account of the unimaginable and its subtle hope for a different future governed by different human choices — a stirring reminder that choice is the necessary reality-shaping counterpart to chance.

99th Infantry Brigade
B.E.F. France
5-12-’15

Dear Bickersteth,

I got what purports to be your address a little while ago and I am sending this scribble there in the hope that it will find you, and find you well and flourishing, “as it leaves me at present.” When next we meet there will be no end to the tales I have to tell you. Even in my palmiest days I was never so fluent as I shall be if and when I come back. I am now something of a specialist in trench warfare, having written the only booklet on grenade fighting which the war office has as yet permitted to see daylight. I run the grenadiers of my brigade and I am at present learning a fair stretch of front from that point of view. I am billeted with two or three other officers in what is left of a little cottage about 3/4 mile behind a fairly hot corner of this country. We are continually under shell fire in this sense, that the friendly Hun shells the immediate neighborhood every day. Just at this moment he has unfortunately caught a squad of men in the road outside with appalling results. Our own guns are blazing away like mad, so that you can’t hear yourself think. There are six aeroplanes up above and the German is making little white puffs of shrapnel all around them. The trenches are simply vile in this weather. Between knee-deep and thigh deep in mud, in addition to the havoc wrought by the Bosch. I was in a fairly heavy bombardment of them two days ago. Everybody retires to dugouts, and even down there, 20 feet below ground sometimes, the shock blows the candles out. Your old friend Dante had a very amateur conception of Hell. I could improve on it vastly.

Still we are, by some providence, alive, and hope to remain so. These matters are in the hands of a blind fate whose decrees it is perhaps well that we cannot foresee. [Freeman] Atkey is, as you doubtless know, out here somewhere, but I have not come across him yet. He is well according to the latest news and not unhappy. The rest of our merry Marlborough “push” are scattered goodness knows where. I wonder if we shall ever have that Reunion dinner that we sometimes talk about.

I hear pretty regularly from “Thornhanger” and gather that a school is no place to be in in these days. Let me know what you and yours are doing. I saw and enjoyed the big London Zeppelin raid, but it’s child’s play to this! — Odd that I should have written that last sentence. It is now a half-hour later. Just where the dash is came a six-incher 10 yards to our left which finished the remaining windows and sent us to the cellar. A second one 10 yards to our right has fallen in an old barn, killed a horse and badly wounded three men. Enough for today. We must eat a humble tea and go on hoping for the best. Good luck to you,

Ever yours,
G. Dyson

Freeman Dyson (right) with his father, George, and his son, also George. (Photograph by Verena Huber-Dyson, courtesy of Dyson family.)

Freeman Dyson began the preface to the wondrous collection of his own letters — the epistolary autobiography Maker of Patterns (public library) — with a sentiment of striking complementarity to his grandfather’s wartime lament:

In March 2017, when this book was almost finished, my wife received a message from our twelve-year-old granddaughter: “We are all metaphors in this dark and lonely world.” Our daughter added her own comment, “The sentiment is tempered by the fact that she has a pink Afro.” The pink Afro displays a proud and joyful spirit, masking the melancholy thoughts of a teenager confronting an uncertain future. Our granddaughter is now emerging into a world strikingly similar to the world of 1936 into which I came as a twelve-year-old. Both our worlds were struggling with gross economic inequality, stubbornly persistent poverty, brutal dictators on the rise, and small wars presaging worse horrors to come. I too was a metaphor for a new generation of young people without illusions. Her declaration of independence is a pink Afro. Mine was a passionate pursuit of mathematics.

Recounting how he fell under the spell of mathematics and physics through the work of the great English mathematician G.H. Hardy and quantum physics pioneer Paul Dirac, whose lectures plunged the young Dyson into “the strange new world of quantum physics, where strict causality is abandoned and atomic events occur by chance,” he adds:

The idea that chance governs nature was then still open to question. In the world of human affairs, Lev Tolstoy asked the same question, whether free choice prevails. While Dirac proclaimed free choice in the world of physics, Tolstoy denied it in the world of history. The idea that Dirac called causality, Tolstoy called Providence. At the end of his War and Peace, he wrote a long philosophical discussion, explaining why human free will is an illusion and Providence is the driving force of history. When I was a student in Cambridge, the same Providence that had destroyed Napoleon’s army in Russia in 1812 was destroying Hitler’s army in Russia in 1943. I was reading Tolstoy and Dirac at the same time.

If Dyson’s physics danced with chance, his humanism always landed on the side of conscious and conscientious choice. Three decades after a human finger trembling with the toxic thrill of nationalism fired the odd bullet to which Dyson owes his life, three years after humanity had savaged itself with another World War, and shortly after his “flash of illumination on the Greyhound bus,” the 25-year-old physicist attended a sermon by the renowned theologian Reinhold Niebuhr at Princeton’s university chapel. In a letter to his family, he summed up the sentiments that had resonated with his own convictions:

Just as the individual man can save his soul only by ceasing to worry about himself and immersing his actions in some larger ends, so also we shall stand a better chance of saving our civilisation if we do not worry too much over the imminent destruction of the little bit of it to which we happen to belong.

Dyson would later recount his father’s fighting strategy during the war — the supreme, most humanistic possible response to inhumanity, for we best survive by making art when life unmakes us:

My father… understood that the best way to show our contempt for Hitler was to continue making music… as if Hitler did not exist. My father said to the students in London in 1940, “All we have to do is to behave halfway decently, and the whole world will come to our side.” That was his way of fighting Hitler.

Complement with Freeman Dyson’s poignant admonition about how our self-expatriation from history shallows our present, then savor more of this uncommon mind, whose improbable existence will never again recur in all the possible configurations of chance and choice across all the rest of time and space, on the pages of Maker of Patterns.

BP

How Kepler Invented Science Fiction and Defended His Mother in a Witchcraft Trial While Revolutionizing Our Understanding of the Universe

How many revolutions does the cog of culture make before a new truth about reality catches into gear?

This essay is adapted from Figuring.

This is how I picture it:

A spindly middle-aged mathematician with a soaring mind, a sunken heart, and bad skin is being thrown about the back of a carriage in the bone-hollowing cold of a German January. Since his youth, he has been inscribing into family books and friendship albums his personal motto, borrowed from a verse by the ancient poet Perseus: “O the cares of man, how much of everything is futile.” He has weathered personal tragedies that would level most. He is now racing through the icy alabaster expanse of the countryside in the precarious hope of averting another: Four days after Christmas and two days after his forty-fourth birthday, a letter from his sister has informed him that their widowed mother is on trial for witchcraft — a fact for which he holds himself responsible.

He has written the world’s first work of science fiction — a clever allegory advancing the controversial Copernican model of the universe, describing the effects of gravity decades before Newton formalized it into a law, envisioning speech synthesis centuries before computers, and presaging space travel three hundred years before the Moon landing. The story, intended to counter superstition with science through symbol and metaphor inviting critical thinking, has instead effected the deadly indictment of his elderly, illiterate mother.

The year is 1617. His name is Johannes Kepler (December 27, 1571–November 15, 1630) — perhaps the unluckiest man in the world, perhaps the greatest scientist who ever lived.

Johannes Kepler

He inhabits a world in which God is mightier than nature, the Devil realer and more omnipresent than gravity. All around him, people believe that the sun revolves around the Earth every twenty-four hours, set into perfect circular motion by an omnipotent creator; the few who dare support the tendentious idea that the Earth rotates around its axis while revolving around the sun believe that it moves along a perfectly circular orbit. Kepler would disprove both beliefs, coin the word orbit, and quarry the marble out of which classical physics would be sculpted. He would be the first astronomer to develop a scientific method of predicting eclipses and the first to link mathematical astronomy to material reality — the first astrophysicist — by demonstrating that physical forces move the heavenly bodies in calculable ellipses. All of this he would accomplish while drawing horoscopes, espousing the spontaneous creation of new animal species rising from bogs and oozing from tree bark, and believing the Earth itself to be an ensouled body that has digestion, that suffers illness, that inhales and exhales like a living organism. Three centuries later, the marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson would reimagine a version of this view woven of science and stripped of mysticism as she makes ecology a household word.

Kepler’s life is a testament to how science does for reality what Plutarch’s thought experiment known as “the Ship of Theseus” does for the self. In the ancient Greek allegory, Theseus — the founder-king of Athens — sailed triumphantly back to the great city after slaying the mythic Minotaur on Crete. For a thousand years, his ship was maintained in the harbor of Athens as a living trophy and was sailed to Crete annually to reenact the victorious voyage. As time began to corrode the vessel, its components were replaced one by one — new planks, new oars, new sails — until no original part remained. Was it then, Plutarch asks, the same ship? There is no static, solid self. Throughout life, our habits, beliefs, and ideas evolve beyond recognition. Our physical and social environments change. Almost all of our cells are replaced. Yet we remain, to ourselves, “who” “we” “are.”

So with science: Bit by bit, discoveries reconfigure our understanding of reality. This reality is revealed to us only in fragments. The more fragments we perceive and parse, the more lifelike the mosaic we make of them. But it is still a mosaic, a representation — imperfect and incomplete, however beautiful it may be, and subject to unending transfiguration. Three centuries after Kepler, Lord Kelvin would take the podium at the British Association of Science in the year 1900 and declare: “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” At the same moment in Zurich, the young Albert Einstein is incubating the ideas that would converge into his revolutionary conception of spacetime, irreversibly transfiguring our elemental understanding of reality.

Even the farthest seers can’t bend their gaze beyond their era’s horizon of possibility, but the horizon shifts with each incremental revolution as the human mind peers outward to take in nature, then turns inward to question its own givens. We sieve the world through the mesh of these certitudes, tautened by nature and culture, but every once in a while — whether by accident or conscious effort — the wire loosens and the kernel of a revolution slips through.

Painting of the Moon by the 17th-century German self-taught astronomer and artist Maria Clara Eimmart. (Available as a print.)

Kepler first came under the thrall of the heliocentric model as a student at the Lutheran University of Tübingen half a century after Copernicus published his theory. The twenty-two-year-old Kepler, studying to enter the clergy, wrote a dissertation about the Moon, aimed at demonstrating the Copernican claim that the Earth is moving simultaneously around its axis and around the sun. A classmate by the name of Christoph Besold — a law student at the university — was so taken with Kepler’s lunar paper that he proposed a public debate. The university promptly vetoed it. A couple of years later, Galileo would write to Kepler that he’d been a believer in the Copernican system himself “for many years” — and yet he hadn’t yet dared to stand up for it in public and wouldn’t for more than thirty years.

Kepler’s radical ideas rendered him too untrustworthy for the pulpit. After graduation, he was banished across the country to teach mathematics at a Lutheran seminary in Graz. But he was glad — he saw himself, mind and body, as cut out for scholarship. “I take from my mother my bodily constitution,” he would later write, “which is more suited to study than to other kinds of life.” Three centuries later, Walt Whitman would observe how beholden the mind is to the body, “how behind the tally of genius and morals stands the stomach, and gives a sort of casting vote.”

While Kepler saw his body as an instrument of scholarship, other bodies around him were being exploited as instruments of superstition. In Graz, he witnessed dramatic exorcisms performed on young women believed to be possessed by demons — grim public spectacles staged by the king and his clergy. He saw brightly colored fumes emanate from one woman’s belly and glistening black beetles crawl out of another’s mouth. He saw the deftness with which the puppeteers of the populace dramatized dogma to wrest control — the church was then the mass media, and the mass media were as unafraid of resorting to propaganda as they are today.

As religious persecution escalated — soon it would erupt into the Thirty Years’ War, the deadliest religious war in the Continent’s history — life in Graz became unlivable. Protestants were forced to marry by Catholic ritual and have their children baptized as Catholics. Homes were raided, heretical books confiscated and destroyed. When Kepler’s infant daughter died, he was fined for evading the Catholic clergy and not allowed to bury his child until he paid the charge. It was time to migrate — a costly and trying endeavor for the family, but Kepler knew there would be a higher price to pay for staying:

I may not regard loss of property more seriously than loss of opportunity to fulfill that for which nature and career have destined me.

Returning to Tübingen for a career in the clergy was out of the question:

I could never torture myself with greater unrest and anxiety than if I now, in my present state of conscience, should be enclosed in that sphere of activity.

Instead, Kepler reconsidered something he had initially viewed merely as a flattering compliment to his growing scientific reputation: an invitation to visit the prominent Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in Bohemia, where he had just been appointed royal mathematician to the Holy Roman Emperor.

Tycho Brahe

Kepler made the arduous five-hundred-kilometer journey to Prague. On February 4, 1600, the famous Dane welcomed him warmly into the castle where he computed the heavens, his enormous orange mustache almost aglow with geniality. During the two months Kepler spent there as guest and apprentice, Tycho was so impressed with the young astronomer’s theoretical ingenuity that he permitted him to analyze the celestial observations he had been guarding closely from all other scholars, then offered him a permanent position. Kepler accepted gratefully and journeyed back to Graz to collect his family, arriving in a retrograde world even more riven by religious persecution. When the Keplers refused to convert to Catholicism, they were banished from the city — the migration to Prague, with all the privations it would require, was no longer optional. Shortly after Kepler and his family alighted in their new life in Bohemia, the valve between chance and choice opened again, and another sudden change of circumstance flooded in: Tycho died unexpectedly at the age of fifty-four. Two days later, Kepler was appointed his successor as imperial mathematician, inheriting Tycho’s data. Over the coming years, he would draw on it extensively in devising his three laws of planetary motion, which would revolutionize the human understanding of the universe.

How many revolutions does the cog of culture make before a new truth about reality catches into gear?

Three centuries before Kepler, Dante had marveled in his Divine Comedy at the new clocks ticking in England and Italy: “One wheel moves and drives the other.” This marriage of technology and poetry eventually gave rise to the metaphor of the clockwork universe. Before Newton’s physics placed this metaphor at the ideological epicenter of the Enlightenment, Kepler bridged the poetic and the scientific. In his first book, The Cosmographic Mystery, Kepler picked up the metaphor and stripped it of its divine dimensions, removing God as the clockmaster and instead pointing to a single force operating the heavens: “The celestial machine,” he wrote, “is not something like a divine organism, but rather something like a clockwork in which a single weight drives all the gears.” Within it, “the totality of the complex motions is guided by a single magnetic force.” It was not, as Dante wrote, “love that moves the sun and other stars” — it was gravity, as Newton would later formalize this “single magnetic force.” But it was Kepler who thus formulated for the first time the very notion of a force — something that didn’t exist for Copernicus, who, despite his groundbreaking insight that the sun moves the planets, still conceived of that motion in poetic rather than scientific terms. For him, the planets were horses whose reins the sun held; for Kepler, they were gears the sun wound by a physical force.

In the anxious winter of 1617, unfigurative wheels are turning beneath Johannes Kepler as he hastens to his mother’s witchcraft trial. For this long journey by horse and carriage, Kepler has packed a battered copy of Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music by Vincenzo Galilei, his sometime friend Galileo’s father — one of the era’s most influential treatises on music, a subject that always enchanted Kepler as much as mathematics, perhaps because he never saw the two as separate. Three years later, he would draw on it in composing his own groundbreaking book The Harmony of the World, in which he would formulate his third and final law of planetary motion, known as the harmonic law — his exquisite discovery, twenty-two years in the making, of the proportional link between a planet’s orbital period and the length of the axis of its orbit. It would help compute, for the first time, the distance of the planets from the sun — the measure of the heavens in an era when the Solar System was thought to be all there was.

As Kepler is galloping through the German countryside to prevent his mother’s execution, the Inquisition in Rome is about to declare the claim of Earth’s motion heretical — a heresy punishable by death.

Behind him lies a crumbled life: Emperor Rudolph II is dead — Kepler is no longer royal mathematician and chief scientific adviser to the Holy Roman Emperor, a job endowed with Europe’s highest scientific prestige, though primarily tasked with casting horoscopes for royalty; his beloved six-year-old son is dead — “a hyacinth of the morning in the first day of spring” wilted by smallpox, a disease that had barely spared Kepler himself as a child, leaving his skin cratered by scars and his eyesight permanently damaged; his first wife is dead, having come unhinged by grief before succumbing to the pox herself.

Before him lies the collision of two worlds in two world systems, the spark of which would ignite the interstellar imagination.

In 1609, Johannes Kepler finished the first work of genuine science fiction — that is, imaginative storytelling in which sensical science is a major plot device. Somnium, or The Dream, is the fictional account of a young astronomer who voyages to the Moon. Rich in both scientific ingenuity and symbolic play, it is at once a masterwork of the literary imagination and an invaluable scientific document, all the more impressive for the fact that it was written before Galileo pointed the first spyglass at the sky and before Kepler himself had ever looked through a telescope.

Kepler knew what we habitually forget — that the locus of possibility expands when the unimaginable is imagined and then made real through systematic effort. Centuries later, in a 1971 conversation with Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke about the future of space exploration, science fiction patron saint Ray Bradbury would capture this transmutation process perfectly: “It’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality.” Like any currency of value, the human imagination is a coin with two inseparable sides. It is our faculty of fancy that fills the disquieting gaps of the unknown with the tranquilizing certitudes of myth and superstition, that points to magic and witchcraft when common sense and reason fail to unveil causality. But that selfsame faculty is also what leads us to rise above accepted facts, above the limits of the possible established by custom and convention, and reach for new summits of previously unimagined truth. Which way the coin flips depends on the degree of courage, determined by some incalculable combination of nature, culture, and character.

In a letter to Galileo containing the first written mention of The Dream’s existence and penned in the spring of 1610 — a little more than a century after Columbus voyaged to the Americas — Kepler ushers his correspondent’s imagination toward fathoming the impending reality of interstellar travel by reminding him just how unimaginable transatlantic travel had seemed not so long ago:

Who would have believed that a huge ocean could be crossed more peacefully and safely than the narrow expanse of the Adriatic, the Baltic Sea or the English Channel?

Kepler envisions that once “sails or ships fit to survive the heavenly breezes” are invented, voyagers would no longer fear the dark emptiness of interstellar space. With an eye to these future explorers, he issues a solidary challenge:

So, for those who will come shortly to attempt this journey, let us establish the astronomy: Galileo, you of Jupiter, I of the moon.

Painting of the Moon by the 17th-century German self-taught astronomer and artist Maria Clara Eimmart. (Available as a print.)

Newton would later refine Kepler’s three laws of motion with his formidable calculus and richer understanding of the underlying force as the foundation of Newtonian gravity. In a quarter millennium, the mathematician Katherine Johnson would draw on these laws in computing the trajectory that lands Apollo 11 on the Moon. They would guide the Voyager spacecraft, the first human-made object to sail into interstellar space.

In The Dream, which Kepler described in his letter to Galileo as a “lunar geography,” the young traveler lands on the Moon to find that lunar beings believe Earth revolves around them — from their cosmic vantage point, our pale blue dot rises and sets against their firmament, something reflected even in the name they have given Earth: Volva. Kepler chose the name deliberately, to emphasize the fact of Earth’s revolution — the very motion that made Copernicanism so dangerous to the dogma of cosmic stability. Assuming that the reader is aware that the Moon revolves around the Earth — an anciently observed fact, thoroughly uncontroversial by his day — Kepler intimates the unnerving central question: Could it be, his story suggests in a stroke of allegorical genius predating Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland by nearly three centuries, that our own certitude about Earth’s fixed position in space is just as misguided as the lunar denizens’ belief in Volva’s revolution around them? Could we, too, be revolving around the sun, even though the ground feels firm and motionless beneath our feet?

The Dream was intended to gently awaken people to the truth of Copernicus’s disconcerting heliocentric model of the universe, defying the long-held belief that Earth is the static center of an immutable cosmos. But earthlings’ millennia-long slumber was too deep for The Dream — a deadly somnolence, for it resulted in Kepler’s elderly mother’s being accused of witchcraft. Tens of thousands of people would be tried for witchcraft by the end of the persecution in Europe, dwarfing the two dozen who would render Salem synonymous with witchcraft trials seven decades later. Most of the accused were women, whose inculpation or defense fell on their sons, brothers, and husbands. Most of the trials ended in execution. In Germany, some twenty-five thousand were killed. In Kepler’s sparsely populated hometown alone, six women had been burned as witches just a few weeks before his mother was indicted.

An uncanny symmetry haunts Kepler’s predicament — it was Katharina Kepler who had first enchanted her son with astronomy when she took him to the top of a nearby hill and let the six-year-old boy gape in wonderment as the Great Comet of 1577 blazed across the sky.

Art from The Comet Book, 1587. (Available as a print.)

By the time he wrote The Dream, Kepler was one of the most prominent scientists in the world. His rigorous fidelity to observational data harmonized with a symphonic imagination. Drawing on Tycho’s data, Kepler devoted a decade and more than seventy failed trials to calculating the orbit of Mars, which became the yardstick for measuring the heavens. Having just formulated the first of his laws, demolishing the ancient belief that the heavenly bodies obey uniform circular motion, Kepler demonstrated that the planets orbit the sun at varying speeds along ellipses. Unlike previous models, which were simply mathematical hypotheses, Kepler discovered the actual orbit by which Mars moved through space, then used the Mars data to determine Earth’s orbit. Taking multiple observations of Mars’s position relative to Earth, he examined how the angle between the two planets changed over the course of the orbital period he had already calculated for Mars: 687 days. To do this, Kepler had to project himself onto Mars with an empathic leap of the imagination. The word empathy would come into popular use three centuries later, through the gateway of art, when it entered the modern lexicon in the early twentieth century to describe the imaginative act of projecting oneself into a painting in an effort to understand why art moves us. Through science, Kepler had projected himself into the greatest work of art there is in an effort to understand how nature draws its laws to move the planets, including the body that moves us through space. Using trigonometry, he calculated the distance between Earth and Mars, located the center of Earth’s orbit, and went on to demonstrate that all the other planets also moved along elliptical orbits, thus demolishing the foundation of Greek astronomy — uniform circular motion — and effecting a major strike against the Ptolemaic model.

The orbital motion of Mars, from Kepler’s Astronomia Nova. (Available as a print.)

Kepler published these revelatory results, which summed up his first two laws, in his book Astronomia nova — The New Astronomy. That is exactly what it was — the nature of the cosmos had forever changed, and so had our place in it. “Through my effort God is being celebrated in astronomy,” Kepler wrote to his former professor, reflecting on having traded a career in theology for the conquest of a greater truth.

By the time of Astronomia nova, Kepler had ample mathematical evidence affirming Copernicus’s theory. But he realized something crucial and abiding about human psychology: The scientific proof was too complex, too cumbersome, too abstract to persuade even his peers, much less the scientifically illiterate public; it wasn’t data that would dismantle their celestial parochialism, but storytelling. Three centuries before the poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote that “the universe is made of stories, not of atoms,” Kepler knew that whatever the composition of the universe may be, its understanding was indeed the work of stories, not of science — that what he needed was a new rhetoric by which to illustrate, in a simple yet compelling way, that the Earth is indeed in motion. And so The Dream was born.

Even in medieval times, the Frankfurt Book Fair was one of the world’s most fecund literary marketplaces. Kepler attended it frequently in order to promote his own books and to stay informed about other important scientific publications. He brought the manuscript of The Dream with him to this safest possible launchpad, where the other attendees, in addition to being well aware of the author’s reputation as a royal mathematician and astronomer, were either scientists themselves or erudite enough to appreciate the story’s clever allegorical play on science. But something went awry: Sometime in 1611, the sole manuscript fell into the hands of a wealthy young nobleman and made its way across Europe. By Kepler’s account, it even reached John Donne and inspired his ferocious satire of the Catholic Church, Ignatius His Conclave. Circulated via barbershop gossip, versions of the story had reached minds far less literary, or even literate, by 1615. These garbled retellings eventually made their way to Kepler’s home duchy.

“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader,” young Sylvia Plath would write to her mother three centuries later. But interpretation invariably reveals more about the interpreter than about the interpreted. The gap between intention and interpretation is always rife with wrongs, especially when writer and reader occupy vastly different strata of emotional maturity and intellectual sophistication. The science, symbolism, and allegorical virtuosity of The Dream were entirely lost on the illiterate, superstitious, and vengeful villagers of Kepler’s hometown. Instead, they interpreted the story with the only tool at their disposal — the blunt weapon of the literal shorn of context. They were especially captivated by one element of the story: The narrator is a young astronomer who describes himself as “by nature eager for knowledge” and who had apprenticed with Tycho Brahe. By then, people far and wide knew of Tycho’s most famous pupil and imperial successor. Perhaps it was a point of pride for locals to have produced the famous Johannes Kepler, perhaps a point of envy. Whatever the case, they immediately took the story to be not fiction but autobiography. This was the seedbed of trouble: Another main character was the narrator’s mother — an herb doctor who conjures up spirits to assist her son in his lunar voyage. Kepler’s own mother was an herb doctor.

Whether what happened next was the product of intentional malevolent manipulation or the unfortunate workings of ignorance is hard to tell. My own sense is that one aided the other, as those who stand to gain from the manipulation of truth often prey on those bereft of critical thinking. According to Kepler’s subsequent account, a local barber overheard the story and seized upon the chance to cast Katharina Kepler as a witch — an opportune accusation, for the barber’s sister Ursula had a bone to pick with the elderly woman, a disavowed friend. Ursula Reinhold had borrowed money from Katharina Kepler and never repaid it. She had also confided in the old widow about having become pregnant by a man other than her husband. In an act of unthinking indiscretion, Katharina had shared this compromising information with Johannes’s younger brother, who had then just as unthinkingly circulated it around the small town. To abate scandal, Ursula had obtained an abortion. To cover up the brutal corporeal aftermath of this medically primitive procedure, she blamed her infirmity on a spell — cast against her, she proclaimed, by Katharina Kepler. Soon Ursula persuaded twenty-four suggestible locals to give accounts of the elderly woman’s sorcery — one neighbor claimed that her daughter’s arm had grown numb after Katharina brushed against it in the street; the butcher’s wife swore that pain pierced her husband’s thigh when Katharina walked by; the limping schoolmaster dated the onset of his disability to a night ten years earlier when he had taken a sip from a tin cup at Katharina’s house while reading her one of Kepler’s letters. She was accused of appearing magically through closed doors, of having caused the deaths of infants and animals. The Dream, Kepler believed, had furnished the superstition-hungry townspeople with evidence of his mother’s alleged witchcraft — after all, her own son had depicted her as a sorcerer in his story, the allegorical nature of which eluded them completely.

For her part, Katharina Kepler didn’t help her own case. Prickly in character and known to brawl, she first tried suing Ursula for slander — a strikingly modern American approach but, in medieval Germany, effective only in stoking the fire, for Ursula’s well-connected family had ties to local authorities. Then she tried bribing the magistrate into dismissing her case by offering him a silver chalice, which was promptly interpreted as an admission of guilt, and the civil case was escalated to a criminal trial for witchcraft.

In the midst of this tumult, Kepler’s infant daughter, named for his mother, died of epilepsy, followed by another son, four years old, of smallpox.

Having taken his mother’s defense upon himself as soon as he first learned of the accusation, the bereaved Kepler devoted six years to the trial, all the while trying to continue his scientific work and to see through the publication of the major astronomical catalog he had been composing since he inherited Tycho’s data. Working remotely from Linz, Kepler first wrote various petitions on Katharina’s behalf, then mounted a meticulous legal defense in writing. He requested trial documentation of witness testimonies and transcripts of his mother’s interrogations. He then journeyed across the country once more, sitting with Katharina in prison and talking with her for hours on end to assemble information about the people and events of the small town he had left long ago. Despite the allegation that she was demented, the seventy-something Katharina’s memory was astonishing — she recalled in granular detail incidents that had taken place years earlier.

Kepler set out to disprove each of the forty-nine “points of disgrace” hurled against his mother, using the scientific method to uncover the natural causes behind the supernatural evils she had allegedly wrought on the townspeople. He confirmed that Ursula had had an abortion, that the teenaged girl had numbed her arm by carrying too many bricks, that the schoolmaster had lamed his leg by tripping into a ditch, that the butcher suffered from lumbago.

None of Kepler’s epistolary efforts at reason worked. Five years into the ordeal, an order for Katharina’s arrest was served. In the small hours of an August night, armed guards barged into her daughter’s house and found Katharina, who had heard the disturbance, hiding in a wooden linen chest — naked, as she often slept during the hot spells of summer. By one account, she was permitted to clothe herself before being taken away; by another, she was carried out disrobed inside the trunk to avoid a public disturbance and hauled to prison for another interrogation. So gratuitous was the fabrication of evidence that even Katharina’s composure through the indignities was held against her — the fact that she didn’t cry during the proceedings was cited as proof of unrepentant liaison with the Devil. Kepler had to explain to the court that he had never seen his stoic mother shed a single tear — not when his father left in Johannes’s childhood, not during the long years Katharina spent raising her children alone, not in the many losses of old age.

Katharina was threatened with being stretched on a wheel — a diabolical device commonly used to extract confessions — unless she admitted to sorcery. This elderly woman, who had outlived her era’s life expectancy by decades, would spend the next fourteen months imprisoned in a dark room, sitting and sleeping on the stone floor to which she was shackled with a heavy iron chain. She faced the threats with self-possession and confessed nothing.

The breaking wheel

In a last recourse, Kepler uprooted his entire family, left his teaching position, and traveled again to his hometown as the Thirty Years’ War raged on. I wonder if he wondered during that dispiriting journey why he had written The Dream in the first place, wondered whether the price of any truth is to be capped at so great a personal cost.

Long ago, as a student at Tübingen, Kepler had read Plutarch’s The Face on the Moon — the mythical story of a traveler who sails to a group of islands north of Britain inhabited by people who know secret passages to the Moon. There is no science in Plutarch’s story — it is pure fantasy. And yet it employs the same simple, clever device that Kepler himself would use in The Dream fifteen centuries later to unsettle the reader’s anthropocentric bias: In considering the Moon as a potential habitat for life, Plutarch pointed out that the idea of life in saltwater seems unfathomable to air-breathing creatures such as ourselves, and yet life in the oceans exists. It would be another eighteen centuries before we would fully awaken not only to the fact of marine life but to the complexity and splendor of this barely fathomable reality when Rachel Carson pioneered a new aesthetic of poetic science writing, inviting the human reader to consider Earth from the nonhuman perspective of sea creatures.

Kepler first read Plutarch’s story in 1595, but it wasn’t until the solar eclipse of 1605, the observations of which first gave him the insight that the orbits of the planets were ellipses rather than circles, that he began seriously considering the allegory as a means of illustrating Copernican ideas. Where Plutarch had explored space travel as metaphysics, Kepler made it a sandbox for real physics, exploring gravity and planetary motion. In writing about the takeoff of his imaginary spaceship, for instance, he makes clear that he has a theoretical model of gravity factoring in the demands that breaking away from Earth’s gravitational grip would place on cosmic voyagers. He goes on to add that while leaving Earth’s gravitational pull would be toilsome, once the spaceship is in the gravity-free “aether,” hardly any force would be needed to keep it in motion — an early understanding of inertia in the modern sense, predating by decades Newton’s first law of motion, which states that a body will move at a steady velocity unless acted upon by an outside force.

In a passage at once insightful and amusing, Kepler describes the physical requirements for his lunar travelers — a prescient description of astronaut training:

No inactive persons are accepted…no fat ones; no pleasure-loving ones; we choose only those who have spent their lives on horseback, or have shipped often to the Indies and are accustomed to subsisting on hardtack, garlic, dried fish and unpalatable fare.

Three centuries later, the early polar explorer Ernest Shackleton would post a similar recruitment ad for his pioneering Antarctic expedition:

Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.

When a woman named Peggy Peregrine expressed interest on behalf of an eager female trio, Shackleton dryly replied: “There are no vacancies for the opposite sex on the expedition.” Half a century later, the Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova would become the first woman to exit Earth’s atmosphere on a spacecraft guided by Kepler’s laws.

After years of exerting reason against superstition, Kepler ultimately succeeded in getting his mother acquitted. But the seventy-five-year-old woman never recovered from the trauma of the trial and the bitter German winter spent in the unheated prison. On April 13, 1622, shortly after she was released, Katharina Kepler died, adding to her son’s litany of losses. A quarter millennium later, Emily Dickinson would write in a poem the central metaphor of which draws on Kepler’s legacy:

Each that we lose takes part of us;
A crescent still abides,
Which like the moon, some turbid night,
Is summoned by the tides.

Partial eclipse of the moon, observed October 24, 1874
Partial eclipse of the Moon — one of French artist Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s astronomical drawings. (Available as a print.)

A few months after his mother’s death, Kepler received a letter from Christoph Besold — the classmate who had stuck up for his lunar dissertation thirty years earlier, now a successful attorney and professor of law. Having witnessed Katharina’s harrowing fate, Besold had worked to expose the ignorance and abuses of power that sealed it, procuring a decree from the duke of Kepler’s home duchy prohibiting any other witchcraft trials unsanctioned by the Supreme Court in the urban and presumably far less superstitious Stuttgart. “While neither your name nor that of your mother is mentioned in the edict,” Besold wrote to his old friend, “everyone knows that it is at the bottom of it. You have rendered an inestimable service to the whole world, and someday your name will be blessed for it.”

Kepler was unconsoled by the decree — perhaps he knew that policy change and cultural change are hardly the same thing, existing on different time scales. He spent the remaining years of his life obsessively annotating The Dream with two hundred twenty-three footnotes — a volume of hypertext equal to the story itself — intended to dispel superstitious interpretations by delineating his exact scientific reasons for using the symbols and metaphors he did.

In his ninety-sixth footnote, Kepler plainly stated “the hypothesis of the whole dream”: “an argument for the motion of the Earth, or rather a refutation of arguments constructed, on the basis of perception, against the motion of the Earth.” Fifty footnotes later, he reiterated the point by asserting that he envisioned the allegory as “a pleasant retort” to Ptolemaic parochialism. In a trailblazing systematic effort to unmoor scientific truth from the illusions of commonsense perception, he wrote:

Everyone says it is plain that the stars go around the earth while the Earth remains still. I say that it is plain to the eyes of the lunar people that our Earth, which is their Volva, goes around while their moon is still. If it be said that the lunatic perceptions of my moon-dwellers are deceived, I retort with equal justice that the terrestrial senses of the Earth-dwellers are devoid of reason.

Copernicus’s heliocentric universe, 1543.

In another footnote, Kepler defined gravity as “a power similar to magnetic power — a mutual attraction,” and described its chief law:

The attractive power is greater in the case of two bodies that are near to each other than it is in the case of bodies that are far apart. Therefore, bodies more strongly resist separation one from the other when they are still close together.

A further footnote pointed out that gravity is a universal force affecting bodies beyond the Earth, and that lunar gravity is responsible for earthly tides: “The clearest evidence of the relationship between earth and the moon is the ebb and flow of the seas.” This fact, which became central to Newton’s laws and which is now so commonplace that schoolchildren point to it as plain evidence of gravity, was far from accepted in Kepler’s scientific community. Galileo, who was right about so much, was also wrong about so much — something worth remembering as we train ourselves in the cultural acrobatics of nuanced appreciation without idolatry. Galileo believed, for instance, that comets were vapors of the earth — a notion Tycho Brahe disproved by demonstrating that comets are celestial objects moving through space along computable trajectories after observing the very comet that had made six-year-old Kepler fall in love with astronomy. Galileo didn’t merely deny that tides were caused by the Moon — he went as far as to mock Kepler’s assertion that they do. “That concept is completely repugnant to my mind,” he wrote — not even in a private letter but in his landmark Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems — scoffing that “though [Kepler] has at his fingertips the motions attributed to the Earth, he has nevertheless lent his ear and his assent to the Moon’s dominion over the waters, to occult properties, and to such puerilities.”

Kepler took particular care with the portion of the allegory he saw as most directly responsible for his mother’s witchcraft trial — the appearance of nine spirits, summoned by the protagonist’s mother. In a footnote, he explained that these symbolize the nine Greek muses. In one of the story’s more cryptic sentences, Kepler wrote of these spirits: “One, particularly friendly to me, most gentle and purest of all, is called forth by twenty-one characters.” In his subsequent defense in footnotes, he explained that the phrase “twenty-one characters” refers to the number of letters used to spell Astronomia Copernicana. The friendliest spirit represents Urania — the ancient Greek muse of astronomy, which Kepler considered the most reliable of the sciences:

Although all the sciences are gentle and harmless in themselves (and on that account they are not those wicked and good-for-nothing spirits with whom witches and fortune-tellers have dealings…), this is especially true of astronomy because of the very nature of its subject matter.

Urania, the ancient Greek muse of astronomy, as depicted in an 1885 Italian book of popular astronomy. (Available as a print.)

When the astronomer William Herschel discovered the seventh planet from the sun a century and a half later, he named it Uranus, after the same muse. Elsewhere in Germany, a young Beethoven heard of the discovery and wondered in the marginalia of one of his compositions: “What will they think of my music on the star of Urania?” Another two centuries later, when Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan compose the Golden Record as a portrait of humanity in sound and image, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony sails into the cosmos aboard the Voyager spacecraft alongside a piece by the composer Laurie Spiegel based on Kepler’s Harmony of the World.

Kepler was unambiguous about the broader political intent of his allegory. The year after his mother’s death, he wrote to an astronomer friend:

Would it be a great crime to paint the cyclopian morals of this period in livid colors, but for the sake of caution, to depart from the earth with such writing and secede to the moon?

Isn’t it better, he wonders in another stroke of psychological genius, to illustrate the monstrosity of people’s ignorance by way of the ignorance of imaginary others? He hoped that by seeing the absurdity of the lunar people’s belief that the Moon is the center of the universe, the inhabitants of Earth would have the insight and integrity to question their own conviction of centrality. Three hundred fifty years later, when fifteen prominent poets are asked to contribute a “statement on poetics” for an influential anthology, Denise Levertov — the only woman of the fifteen — would state that poetry’s highest task is “to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.” This must have been what Kepler aimed to do with The Dream — his serenade to the poetics of science, aimed at awakening.

In the wake of his mother’s witchcraft trial, Kepler made another observation centuries ahead of its time, even ahead of the seventeenth-century French philosopher François Poullain de la Barre’s landmark assertion that “the mind has no sex.” In Kepler’s time, long before the discovery of genetics, it was believed that children bore a resemblance to their mothers, in physiognomy and character, because they were born under the same constellation. But Kepler was keenly aware of how different he and Katharina were as people, how divergent their worldviews and their fates — he, a meek leading scientist about to turn the world over; she, a mercurial, illiterate woman on trial for witchcraft. If the horoscopes he had once drawn for a living did not determine a person’s life-path, Kepler couldn’t help but wonder what did — here was a scientist in search of causality. A quarter millennium before social psychology existed as a formal field of study, he reasoned that what had gotten his mother into all this trouble in the first place — her ignorant beliefs and behaviors taken for the work of evil spirits, her social marginalization as a widow — was the fact that she had never benefited from the education her son, as a man, had received. In the fourth section of The Harmony of the World — his most daring and speculative foray into natural philosophy — Kepler writes in a chapter devoted to “metaphysical, psychological, and astrological” matters:

I know a woman who was born under almost the same aspects, with a temperament which was certainly very restless, but by which she not only has no advantage in book learning (that is not surprising in a woman) but also disturbs the whole of her town, and is the author of her own lamentable misfortune.

In the very next sentence, Kepler identifies the woman in question as his own mother and proceeds to note that she never received the privileges he did. “I was born a man, not a woman,” he writes, “a difference in sex which the astrologers seek in vain in the heavens.” The difference between the fate of the sexes, Kepler suggests, is not in the heavens but in the earthly construction of gender as a function of culture. It was not his mother’s nature that made her ignorant, but the consequences of her social standing in a world that rendered its opportunities for intellectual illumination and self-actualization as fixed as the stars.

Read other excerpts from Figuring here; read more about the book’s overarching aboutness here.

BP

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