Johannes Kepler

Johannes Kepler. (Picture courtesy of Sternwarte Kremsmünster, Upper-Austria)

Johannes Kepler (December 27, 1571 – November 15, 1630), Johannes Kepler was one of the most important scientist in the field of astronomy. He was the founder of "celestial mechanics", having been the first to explain planetary motion. In addition to his theories on the structure of the Universe, Kepler made important headway into the field of optics, his publication Stereometrica Doliorum formed the basis of integral calculus, and he also made important advances in geometry.

In addition to these major breakthroughs, Kepler also explained how the tides were influenced by the Moon, determined the exact year of Christ's birth, derived Logarithms based on mathematics, with no reference to John Napier's work, and is responsible for finding the three laws of planetary motion.

Kepler's first Law: The orbit of a planet about the Sun is an ellipse with the Sun's center of mass at one focus.

Kepler's second Law: A line joining a planet and the Sun sweeps out equal areas in equal intervals of time.

Kepler's third Law: The squares of the periods of the planets are proportional to the cubes of their semi-major axes.

He is sometimes referred to as "the first theoretical astrophysicist", although Carl Sagan also referred to him as the last scientific astrologer.

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Johannes Kepler Quotes

Nature uses as little as possible of anything.

I much prefer the sharpest criticism of a single intelligent man to the thoughtless approval of the masses.

So long as the mother, Ignorance, lives, it is not safe for Science, the offspring, to divulge the hidden cause of things.

Planets move in ellipses with the Sun at one focus.

I demonstrate by means of philosophy that the earth is round, and is inhabited on all sides; that it is insignificantly small, and is borne through the stars.

But who shall dwell in these worlds if they be inhabited?....Are we or they Lords of the World?....And how are all things made for man?

Truth is the daughter of time, and I feel no shame in being her midwife.

It may be well to wait a century for a reader, as God has waited six thousand years for an observer.

The diversity of the phenomena of nature is so great, and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich, precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment.

The radius vector describes equal areas in equal times.

The squares of the periodic times are to each other as the cubes of the mean distances.

Johannes Kepler Biography

Johannes Kepler was born in Weil-der-Stadt, Germany. He studied at Tubingen, and in 1593 was appointed professor of mathematics at Graz. He corresponded with the astronomer Tycho Brahe, who was then in Prague, and for a short time worked with him. Kepler was the first to search for a physical explanation for planetary orbits and he discovered that the orbits are elliptical with the sun at one focus.

His paternal grandfather, Sebald Kepler, was a respected craftsman who served as mayor of the city; his maternal grandfather, Melchior Guldenmann, was an innkeeper and mayor of the nearby village of Eltingen. His father, Heinrich Kepler, was "an immoral, rough and quarrelsome soldier," according to Kepler, and he described his mother in similar unflattering terms. From 1574 to 1576 Johannes lived with his grandparents; in 1576 his parents moved to nearby Leonberg, where Johannes entered the Latin school. In 1584 he entered the Protestant seminary at Adelberg, and in 1589 he began his university education at the Protestant university of Tübingen. Here he studied theology and read widely. He passed the M.A. examination in 1591 and continued his studies as a graduate student.

Kepler's teacher in the mathematical subjects was Michael Maestlin (1580-1635). Maestlin was one of the earliest astronomers to subscribe to Copernicus's heliocentric theory, although in his university lectures he taught only the Ptolemaic system. Only in what we might call graduate seminars did he acquaint his students, among whom was Kepler, with the technical details of the Copernican system. Kepler stated later that at this time he became a Copernican for "physical or, if you prefer, metaphysical reasons."

In 1594 Kepler accepted an appointment as professor of mathematics at the Protestant seminary in Graz (in the Austrian province of Styria). He was also appointed district mathematician and calendar maker. Kepler remained in Graz until 1600, when all Protestants were forced to convert to Catholicism or leave the province, as part of Counter Reformation measures. For six years, Kepler taught arithmetic, geometry (when there were interested students), Virgil, and rhetoric. In his spare time he pursued his private studies in astronomy and astrology. In 1597 Kepler married Barbara Müller. In that same year he published his first important work, The Cosmographic Mystery, in which he argued that the distances of the planets from the Sun in the Copernican system were determined by the five regular solids, if one supposed that a planet's orbit was circumscribed about one solid and inscribed in another.

Kepler's model to explain the relative distances of the planets from the Sun in the Copernican System.

Except for Mercury, Kepler's construction produced remarkably accurate results. Because of his talent as a mathematician, displayed in this volume, Kepler was invited by Tycho Brahe to Prague to become his assistant and calculate new orbits for the planets from Tycho's observations. Kepler moved to Prague in 1600.

Kepler served as Tycho Brahe's assistant until the latter's death in 1601 and was then appointed Tycho's successor as Imperial Mathematician, the most prestigious appointment in mathematics in Europe. He occupied this post until, in 1612, Emperor Rudolph II was deposed. In Prague Kepler published a number of important books. In 1604 Astronomia pars Optica ("The Optical Part of Astronomy") appeared, in which he treated atmospheric refraction but also treated lenses and gave the modern explanation of the workings of the eye; in 1606 he published De Stella Nova ("Concerning the New Star") on the new star that had appeared in 1604; and in 1609 his Astronomia Nova ("New Astronomy") appeared, which contained his first two laws (planets move in elliptical orbits with the sun as one of the foci, and a planet sweeps out equal areas in equal times). Whereas other astronomers still followed the ancient precept that the study of the planets is a problem only in kinematics, Kepler took an openly dynamic approach, introducing physics into the heavens.

In 1610 Kepler heard and read about Galileo's discoveries with the spyglass. He quickly composed a long letter of support which he published as Dissertatio cum Nuncio Sidereo ("Conversation with the Sidereal Messenger"), and when, later that year, he obtained the use of a suitable telescope, he published his observations of Jupiter's satellites under the title Narratio de Observatis Quatuor Jovis Satellitibus ("Narration about Four Satellites of Jupiter observed"). These tracts were an enormous support to Galileo, whose discoveries were doubted or denied by many. Both of Kepler's tracts were quickly reprinted in Florence. Kepler went on to provide the beginning of a theory of the telescope in his Dioptrice, published in 1611.

During this period the Keplers had three children (two had been born in Graz but died within months), Susanna (1602), who married Kepler's assistant Jakob Bartsch in 1630, Friedrich (1604-1611), and Ludwig (1607-1663). Kepler's wife, Barbara, died in 1612. In that year Kepler accepted the position of district mathematician in the city of Linz, a position he occupied until 1626. In Linz Kepler married Susanna Reuttinger. The couple had six children, of whom three died very early.

In Linz Kepler published first a work on chronology and the year of Jesus's birth, In German in 1613 and more amply in Latin in 1614: De Vero Anno quo Aeternus Dei Filius Humanam Naturam in Utero Benedictae Virginis Mariae Assumpsit (Concerning the True Year in which the Son of God assumed a Human Nature in the Uterus of the Blessed Virgin Mary"). In this work Kepler demonstrated that the Christian calendar was in error by five years, and that Jesus had been born in 4 BC, a conclusion that is now universally accepted. Between 1617 and 1621 Kepler published Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae ("Epitome of Copernican Astronomy"), which became the most influential introduction to heliocentric astronomy; in 1619 he published Harmonice Mundi ("Harmony of the World"), in which he derived the heliocentric distances of the planets and their periods from considerations of musical harmony. In this work we find his third law, relating the periods of the planets to their mean orbital radii.

In 1615-16 there was a witch hunt in Kepler's native region, and his own mother was accused of being a witch. It was not until late in 1620 that the proceedings against her ended with her being set free. At her trial, her defense was conducted by her son Johannes.

1618 marked the beginning of the Thirty Years War, a war that devastated the German and Austrian region. Kepler's position in Linz now became progressively worse, as Counter Reformation measures put pressure on Protestants in the Upper Austria province of which Linz was the capital. Because he was a court official, Kepler was exempted from a decree that banished all Protestants from the province, but he nevertheless suffered persecution. During this time Kepler was having his Tabulae Rudolphinae ("Rudolphine Tables") printed, the new tables, based on Tycho Brahe's accurate observations, calculated according to Kepler's elliptical astronomy. When a peasant rebellion broke out and Linz was besieged, a fire destroyed the printer's house and shop, and with it much of the printed edition. Soldiers were garrisoned in Kepler's house. He and his family left Linz in 1626. The Tabulae Rudolphinae were published in Ulm in 1627.

Kepler now had no position and no salary. He tried to obtain appointments from various courts and returned to Prague in an effort to pry salary that was owed him from his years as Imperial Mathematician from the imperial treasury. He died in Regensburg in 1630. Besides the works mentioned here, Kepler published numerous smaller works on a variety of subjects.

Original biography compiled by The History of Computing Project and The Galileo Project

(For more information see Wikipedia)


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