Re: Johannes Kepler and the "murder" of Tycho Brahe?

From: Preston Garrison <garrisonp@uthscsa.edu>
Date: Fri Nov 18 2005 - 22:12:10 EST

Clarke,

I asked about this book some time back and Ted Davis responded with
the opinion of another Kepler expert pretty much agreeing with Dr.
Gingerich. Ted's comments are below. One note - Ted calls it a novel
- it's not, it's written as history and argument.

Like Clarke, I was inclined to regard Kepler as something of a
spiritual hero, so I felt obliged to read the book to see if I was
being fooled. I didn't expect it to be a very good case. I have since
finished the book and I have to say, they made a better sounding case
to this non-expert than I expected. They deal with most of the
objections that I've heard, including a substantial discussion of
alchemical particulars concerning Brahe. At the least, they convinced
me that:

1) Kepler was obsessed with getting ahold of Brahe's data. Kepler
admits that he was obsessed with doing something scientific that
would establish his own greatness. But, he couldn't see well enough
to make his own observations, as a result of smallpox in his
childhood. Thus he absolutely needed Brahe's data.
2) Kepler was capable of rage - he got into a rage at Brahe within a
short time of joining him, and this required much smoothing over and
apologizing. Rage and obsession seem to me to be quite plausible as a
cause of murder.
3) Despite the fact that Brahe made a point of saying the night
before he died, that his data belonged to his family and was to
benefit them, when he died Kepler grabbed the data and took off.

The authors admit that no case for murder can be conclusive at 400 years.

After reading their account and their quotations from Kepler, I'm
inclined to think that his piety was intense but pretty exclusively
intellectual. I don't think it resulted in his being very easy to get
along with. Murder? I don't know. Maybe. In any case, if someone is
going to trash the book, they ought to read it. I won't personally go
any further trying to see if the hypothesis is plausible, since I
don't know the German to read Kepler's letters.

Preston G.

--------------

I'm not a Kepler expert--although I once had serious intents about doing a
dissertation on him. I have discussed "Heavenly Intrigue" with a leading
Kepler expert and have been privy to the opinions of some other experts.
Their views are the same as mine: the novel is very interesting, partly
based on fact (it's a fact that Tycho ingested a relatively high amount of
Mercury within hours of his death), but also highly speculative in its
interpretation of Tycho's death and very strongly biased in its
interpretation of the two principal characters (Tycho and Kepler).

Let me refer ASAers to the review of this book that appeared in the Journal
for the History of Astronomy, ol. 35 Part 4, November 2004. The review is
not available online, but a friend sent me an electronic copy prior to
publication. Gleiser, a physicist at Dartmouth, is writing his own novel
about Kepler--one of these days, someone is going to make a film about
Kepler, a film that could be pretty darn good if it's done properly, he was
IMO the single most interesting important scientist in history, there are
already some novels as well as Koestler's novelesque biography, "The
Watershed."

Gleiser sees the argument as having 3 parts: (1) the claim about Tycho and
mercury; (2) Tycho was murdered; and (3) Kepler did it. "Step one is
believable, step two is doubtful, and step three verges on the
preposterous." Kepler is depicted as so driven by his concept of cosmic
order that he murdered the admirable Tycho--or so the authors have it. In
reality, Tycho was "far from magnanimous, ... a tremendously aggressive and,
at points, an evil character, pretentious and tyrannical," and at the same
time "there is nothing whatsoever in Kepler's writings, or in his conduct
toward Tycho or any other person, however angry and short-tempered, to
suggest that he would be capable of murder." Perhaps (I say perhaps,
following Gleiser) Tycho hastened his own death (he was suffering,
depressed, and in "serious financial difficulties"), or perhaps he was given
a draft by his attending physician, but there is no reason to look in
Kepler's direction for Tycho's demise.

Ted
Received on Fri Nov 18 22:16:51 2005

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