Johannes Kepler Had An Interesting Life

Johannes Kepler 1610

Johannes Kepler had an interesting life; not only was his mentor the infamous silver-nosed drinker, Tycho Brahe, but his mother was tried as a witch…

More than 300 years after Salem’s famous trials, American popular culture remains preoccupied with the supposed witches of 17th-century Massachusetts. But we do not hear much about the women accused of witchcraft across the ocean during the same period in Württemberg, Germany. In “The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for his Mother,” Ulinka Rublack, a professor of early modern history at the University of Cambridge, introduces us to one of these witches, Katharina Kepler, who was tried in Württemberg in 1615-21.

Katharina was the mother of Johannes Kepler, a key figure in the Scientific Revolution that had begun to sweep Europe. In 1609, as court astronomer to Emperor Rudolph II of Prague, Johannes used the remarkable naked-eye observations of his predecessor Tycho Brahe to discover that the planets orbit the sun in paths that are elliptical—overthrowing the belief in circular orbits that had held since Aristotle’s time and strengthening the arguments for a heliocentric universe. Johannes was a deeply religious Lutheran whose scientific work was imbued with spiritual beliefs. He cast horoscopes, listened to the “music of the spheres” and understood the cosmos to be a living organism possessed of a soul. Like most people of his time, he believed in the existence of witches.

Witchcraft trials in Germany were family affairs. A woman prosecuted as a witch had to rely for her legal defense on her husband, if she had one, and on her brothers and sons, if she did not. Widows were frequent targets of such accusations, because their right to engage in commercial activities—denied to other women—gave them an independence that went against the social order. Many widows, including Katharina, earned money as healers, using strange herbs and incantations. People feared the power of these women.

Katharina’s first accuser was her own son Heinrich, a ne’er-do-well who had returned home after 25 years of fighting as a mercenary throughout Europe. Angered that she did not have enough food on hand to satisfy him, he “publicly slandered her as a witch,” as Ms. Rublack recounts, and died soon afterward. His comment would come to haunt the trial, which was prompted by a persistent neighbor of Katharina, who claimed that she had become lame after drinking one of Katharina’s potions. Once Katharina was charged, other disturbing facts came to light, such as her request that a gravedigger exhume her father’s head so that she could fashion the skull into a drinking vessel. Hearing this, even Johannes wondered if there was something to the allegations.

What happened to Katharina Kepler is a morality tale about the dangers faced by independent, strong-willed and sometimes disagreeable women in Germany in early modern Europe. It is also a valuable reminder that the Scientific Revolution was made by men with deeply held spiritual, religious and metaphysical views, including the belief that there were witches all around them—even, perhaps, at home.

(click here to continue reading Science, Sorcery and Sons – WSJ.)

More grist for the biopic…

Stop The Witchcraft
Stop The Witchcraft

To Neil deGrasse Tyson, Siberia Meteor Showed Value of Science

Smirnoff in Space

Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of those rare scientists who also has the gift of explaining complex scientific phenomena in clear language. I’ve long been a fan of his Nova shows on PBS. Granted, it is a little strange that his new show is going to be broadcast on climate change denying-Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Network, but maybe it will be informative despite that constriction. I’ll certainly watch it.

He also makes a good point about the trend of Christian Taliban slowly taking over our government, escaped 12th century residents like Rep Paul Broun, who we ignore at our peril…

These days, Dr. Tyson is less focused on the planetarium than on creating a new iteration of “Cosmos,” the hit PBS series featuring Carl Sagan, which was first broadcast in 1980. This sequel, for the Fox network, is planned for early next year.

One of its producers is Seth MacFarlane. Yup, that Seth MacFarlane, the “Family Guy” guy and (to some viewers) the cringe-inducing host of this year’s Academy Awards show. Whatever one may think of his brand of comedy, “Seth MacFarlane is deeply committed to science literacy in this country,” Dr. Tyson said, and the two of them share a goal: reinforcing the idea that “science needs to be taken to people’s hearts in a way that they become better citizens for it.”

Is he saying that we treat science and mathematics shabbily in this country, where many people are all too proud to admit to a fear of all sums? Actually, Dr. Tyson said, “I don’t think the country’s less literate in math and science than ever before.”

…Pop culture, too, is part of “a positive trend line,” given science-themed blockbuster films like “Avatar” and the durable “Star Wars” series, and popular television programs like the “C.S.I.” and “NCIS” franchises and “The Big Bang Theory.”

“There was a day when we didn’t have science at all in television programming,” Dr. Tyson said between sips of his soda. “Now it’s there, without having to stereotype the lab-coated, wire-haired character.”

Here’s the real problem, as he sees it: “You have people who are not scientifically literate who have risen to positions of power and control,” whether on local school boards or in Congress. He mentioned Representative Paul C. Broun, a Georgia Republican (and doctor) who sits on the House Science Committee and who says the world is 9,000 years old and was literally created in six days.

Voters, Dr. Tyson said, need to grasp the consequences of their electoral choices, especially if they produce officials who “undermine the source of creativity for tomorrow’s economy.” Meddle with the citizenry’s understanding of science and technology, he said, and people “will emerge on the other side incapable of making the discoveries and innovations that the nation requires in order to stay economically competitive.”

When it comes to the Creation, “if you use the Bible as your science textbook, you will go astray — there’s no question about it,” he said, adding: “Galileo understood this. He can be credited with drawing a line in the sand with his famous quote that the Bible tells you how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”

(click here to continue reading To Planetarium Director, Siberia Meteor Showed Value of Science –

Carl Sagan US astronomer SP
Carl Sagan – US astronomer, hero


I’ve said often I’m a film school dropout, but the truth is, I’m also a physics student dropout1

  1. I was accepted at UT-Austin as a physics student, but was daunted by the lack of electives available to me, so eventually switched to the Liberal Arts college. I did continue to work for the Physics Lecture Demonstrations Office support staff for three years though – and would have continued working there if I could have. []