Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Understanding Kepler's work

When King Frederick died in 1588, Tycho lost his most understanding and indulgent patron. Frederick’s son Christian IV was less interested in astronomy than his father had been, and, to Christian, Tycho was an unreasonably demanding protégé, who repeatedly sought more money. At last, the astronomer left Denmark and ultimately settled in Prague in 1599 as Imperial Mathematician of the Holy Roman Empire. In the Czech city, he was joined by a persistent younger German astronomer, Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), who, after writing several flattering letters to Tycho, became his student and disciple.

Tycho Brahe, a colorful character, who lost part of his nose in a duel (he replaced it with a golden prosthesis), died ingloriously in 1601, apparently from a burst bladder after drinking too much at a dinner party. After a bit of a struggle, Kepler got a hold of the mass of complex observational data Tycho had accumulated. While Tycho had been a brilliant observer, he was not a particularly good theoretician. Kepler, a sickly child, had grown into a frail adult with the mind of a brilliant theorist—though with very little aptitude for close observation, since he also suffered from poor eyesight. Indeed, Tycho and Kepler were the original odd couple, who argued incessantly; yet their skills were perfectly complementary.

And when Tycho died, instead of using his instruments to make new observations, Kepler dived into Tycho’s data, seeking in its precise observations of planetary positions a unifying principle that would explain the motions of the planets without resorting to epicycles. It was clear, especially with Tycho’s data, that the Copernican system of planets moving around the sun in perfectly circular orbits was not going to be sufficient. Kepler sought the missing piece of information that would harmonize the heliostatic solar system of Copernicus with the mountain of data that was Tycho’s planetary observations.

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