Johannes Kepler was a late-sixteenth-century philosopher/freak who walked the fine line between genius and delusion. He had a lifelong conviction that a secret, simple mathematical order lay hidden just beneath the confusing, chaotic surface of the universe. He found it hard to find steady work and, like many astronomers of his day, kept a day job as a court astrologer, casting fortunes for the rich and famous.f With a seamless blend of mysticism and science he pursued his search for the numerological and geometrical designs of creation.
The more I learn about Kepler's actual life and work, as opposed to the filtered version we are taught (and then teach) in Astronomy 101, the more he reminds me of guys like Love 22. When I was in college in Providence, this jovial crazy person named Love 22 hung around Thayer Street preaching the gospel of the number 22 to all who would listen. He lived in a red-white-and-blue converted school bus, and though his material possessions were few, he knew the secret of cosmic harmony and wisdom. It all had to do with the number 22. Wearing his trademark Uncle Sam uniform, he handed out $22 dollar bills and showed how the number 22 is hidden in the names of presidents, prophets, and all phrases of spiritual wisdom. He ran a perpet
*In 1686, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle wrote of Copernicus's death, "He didn't want to rebut all the contradictions he foresaw, and he skillfully withdrew from the affair." +Today we just write grant proposals.
ual campaign for president and governor, on the Love 22 ticket (Love for Gov!). Love was quite the comedian but he seemed sincere. My friends and I thought that he was rather sweet and enjoyed talking to him.*
There is only one Love, but there are many like him. There is a personality type—and you've got to have it to go in for this kind of existence— that is remarkably impervious to the fact that virtually everyone thinks you're out of your mind. These self-appointed misunderstood geniuses are convinced they've discovered some system of knowledge that humanity needs. I've met them handing out pamphlets in cafés in San Francisco, Tucson, Providence, Cambridge, Boulder, Ann Arbor, and Madison, trading wisdom for cash to buy food or wine or to Xerox more pamphlets. Often, more than money, they want a sympathetic ear. An earnest fellow in Boston once showed me mathematically detailed plans for faster-than-light starships and time machines.
Because I've published articles in popular-astronomy magazines, I get letters from people all around the world with elaborate theories of everything. I don't throw them out. I keep them in a file labeled Kook. Maybe somewhere in the kook files of the world's astronomy writers is an obscure tract containing the seeds of the next Copernican revolution. Kepler, the father of planetary physics, if he were alive today, might well be living in a converted school bus on the outskirts of some college town peddling mystical pamphlets, living off donations, and spouting cosmic wisdom to anyone who would listen.
Kepler is a missing link between the two modern sources of belief in aliens. The man who worked out the mathematical laws of planetary motion was motivated largely by a desire to cast more accurate horoscopes. Today, two separate strains of believers about alien life coexist in our culture: rationalist scientific followers of SETI (the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) and mystical, New Age UFO believers. The roots of science and pseudoscience are completely intertwined in Kepler's work. Like a modern scientist, he was seeking the simple patterns underlying apparently complex phenomena. Like a modern New Ager he was obsessed with numerological coincidences and convinced they had cosmic significance.
*I hadn't heard of him in, well, nearly twenty-two years, but today, thinking about Kepler, I searched for Love on the Web and learned that he's in Key West, still doing his 22 bit with what seems to be a larger comedy factor than I remember.
Kepler believed in the Copernican system, for reasons that were essentially mystical. The Sun should be at the center of everything, he felt, because it is the symbol of God and the source of heat and light. In his restless, obsessive quest to explain the proportions and motions of the planetary orbits, he crafted innumerable schemes, most of which seem today to be elaborate, colorful nonsense. He wondered why there were six planets (Earth plus the five visible to the unaided eye). He wanted to find the significance of this number and an explanation for the five distance intervals between the planets, a simple geometry that would make it all fit together and reveal the plan of the creator. At age twenty-four, in a fit of inspiration, he thought he found the answer.
He seized upon the fact that there are five "perfect solids" (pyramid, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron) and also (get this) five unexplained distances between the planets. Coincidence? He didn't think so. He constructed a model of the solar system with the five perfect solids stacked tightly inside one another, like a cubist set of Russian dolls. When he discovered that the relative sizes of the shapes in this model are exactly the same as the size ratios of the planetary orbits, it blew him away. This was the secret structure to the universe he had been searching for. "The delight that I took in my discovery," he wrote, "I shall never be able to describe in words."
Today Kepler's solar system model, like most of his other discoveries, is seen as a wacky and amusing dead end. Yet, Kepler considered this model, not "Kepler's laws" that we teach in every astronomy course today, to be his greatest achievement. This design for the solar system and the rush he got from its discovery inspired a lifelong, and ultimately successful, quest for the laws of planetary motion. Though his genius was profligate, undisciplined, and borderline crazy, his keen intellect was less bound by convention than that of his contemporaries.
Kepler was bothered by the failure of the Sun-centered solar system model to predict planetary motions accurately. The planet Mars, in particular, strayed from the sky path prescribed for it by the Copernican model. In his determination to save the Copernican system, Kepler tried innumerable mathematical schemes to make it work, often obsessing maniacally for months on a new idea, only to toss it out and start on another. Finally, in a classic example of out-of-the-box thinking (in this case the box is round), he calculated the motions that Mars would exhibit if its orbit were not circular but egg-shaped, elliptical. Eureka!
Suddenly it all worked. Mars and the other planets moved exactly as predicted once Kepler liberated them from Aristotelian circles and allowed them to follow elliptical paths in a Sun-centered system.
It worked. But was it real? Were the planets—Earth among them— really moving around the Sun in this manner? Could our world, our rock-solid, all-encompassing Earth, truly belong to the same class of objects as those ethereal little lights roving the night sky? The answer was not long in coming.
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