A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 2, chapter IV
The new cosmology
Johann Kepler 
and the laws of planetary motion
Johann Kepler was born the 27th of December, 1571, in the little town of Weil, in Wurtemburg. He was a weak, sickly child, further enfeebled by a severe attack of small-pox. It would seem paradoxical to assert that the parents of such a genius were mismated, but their home was not a happy one, the mother being of a nervous temperament, which perhaps in some measure accounted for the genius of the child. The father led the life of a soldier, and finally perished in the campaign against the Turks. Young Kepler's studies were directed with an eye to the ministry. After a preliminary training he attended the university at Tubingen, where he came under the influence of the celebrated Maestlin and became his life-long friend.

Curiously enough, it is recorded that at first Kepler had no taste for astronomy or for mathematics. But the doors of the ministry being presently barred to him, he turned with enthusiasm to the study of astronomy, being from the first an ardent advocate of the Copernican system. His teacher, Maestlin, accepted the same doctrine, though he was obliged, for theological reasons, to teach the Ptolemaic system, as also to oppose the Gregorian reform of the calendar.

The Gregorian calendar, it should be explained, is so called because it was instituted by Pope Gregory XIII., who put it into effect in the year 1582, up to which time the so-called Julian calendar, as introduced by Julius Caesar, had been everywhere accepted in Christendom. This Julian calendar, as we have seen, was a great improvement on preceding ones, but still lacked something of perfection inasmuch as its theoretical day differed appreciably from the actual day. In the course of fifteen hundred years, since the time of Caesar, this defect amounted to a discrepancy of about eleven days. Pope Gregory proposed to correct this by omitting ten days from the calendar, which was done in September, 1582. To prevent similar inaccuracies in the future, the Gregorian calendar provided that once in four centuries the additional day to make a leap-year should be omitted, the date selected for such omission being the last year of every fourth century. Thus the years 1500, 1900, and 2300, A.D., would not be leap-years. By this arrangement an approximate rectification of the calendar was effected, though even this does not make it absolutely exact.

Such a rectification as this was obviously desirable, but there was really no necessity for the omission of the ten days from the calendar. The equinoctial day had shifted so that in the year 1582 it fell on the 10th of March and September. There was no reason why it should not have remained there. It would greatly have simplified the task of future historians had Gregory contented himself with providing for the future stability of the calendar without making the needless shift in question. We are so accustomed to think of the 21st of March and 21st of September as the natural periods of the equinox, that we are likely to forget that these are purely arbitrary dates for which the 10th might have been substituted without any inconvenience or inconsistency.

But the opposition to the new calendar, to which reference has been made, was not based on any such considerations as these. It was due, largely at any rate, to the fact that Germany at this time was under sway of the Lutheran revolt against the papacy. So effective was the opposition that the Gregorian calendar did not come into vogue in Germany until the year 1699. It may be added that England, under stress of the same manner of prejudice, held out against the new reckoning until the year 1751, while Russia does not accept it even now.

As the Protestant leaders thus opposed the papal attitude in a matter of so practical a character as the calendar, it might perhaps have been expected that the Lutherans would have had a leaning towards the Copernican theory of the universe, since this theory was opposed by the papacy. Such, however, was not the case. Luther himself pointed out with great strenuousness, as a final and demonstrative argument, the fact that Joshua commanded the sun and not the earth to stand still; and his followers were quite as intolerant towards the new teaching as were their ultramontane opponents. Kepler himself was, at various times, to feel the restraint of ecclesiastical opposition, though he was never subjected to direct persecution, as was his friend and contemporary, Galileo. At the very outset of Kepler's career there was, indeed, question as to the publication of a work he had written, because that work took for granted the truth of the Copernican doctrine. This work appeared, however, in the year 1596. It bore the title Mysterium Cosmographium, and it attempted to explain the positions of the various planetary bodies. Copernicus had devoted much time to observation of the planets with reference to measuring their distance, and his efforts had been attended with considerable success. He did not, indeed, know the actual distance of the sun, and, therefore, was quite unable to fix the distance of any planet; but, on the other hand, he determined the relative distance of all the planets then known, as measured in terms of the sun's distance, with remarkable accuracy.

With these measurements as a guide, Kepler was led to a very fanciful theory, according to which the orbits of the five principal planets sustain a peculiar relation to the five regular solids of geometry. His theory was this: "Around the orbit of the earth describe a dodecahedron - the circle comprising it will be that of Mars; around Mars describe a tetrahedron - the circle comprising it will be that of Jupiter; around Jupiter describe a cube - the circle comprising it will be that of Saturn; now within the earth's orbit inscribe an icosahedron - the inscribed circle will be that of Venus; in the orbit of Venus inscribe an octahedron - the circle inscribed will be that of Mercury."[3]

Though this arrangement was a fanciful one, which no one would now recall had not the theorizer obtained subsequent fame on more substantial grounds, yet it evidenced a philosophical spirit on the part of the astronomer which, misdirected as it was in this instance, promised well for the future. Tycho Brahe, to whom a copy of the work was sent, had the acumen to recognize it as a work of genius. He summoned the young astronomer to be his assistant at Prague, and no doubt the association thus begun was instrumental in determining the character of Kepler's future work. It was precisely the training in minute observation that could avail most for a mind which, like Kepler's, tended instinctively to the formulation of theories. When Tycho Brahe died, in 1601, Kepler became his successor. In due time he secured access to all the unpublished observations of his great predecessor, and these were of inestimable value to him in the progress of his own studies.

Kepler was not only an ardent worker and an enthusiastic theorizer, but he was an indefatigable writer, and it pleased him to take the public fully into his confidence, not merely as to his successes, but as to his failures. Thus his works elaborate false theories as well as correct ones, and detail the observations through which the incorrect guesses were refuted by their originator. Some of these accounts are highly interesting, but they must not detain us here. For our present purpose it must suffice to point out the three important theories, which, as culled from among a score or so of incorrect ones, Kepler was able to demonstrate to his own satisfaction and to that of subsequent observers. Stated in a few words, these theories, which have come to bear the name of Kepler's Laws, are the following:

1. That the planetary orbits are not circular, but elliptical, the sun occupying one focus of the ellipses.

2. That the speed of planetary motion varies in different parts of the orbit in such a way that an imaginary line drawn from the sun to the planet - that is to say, the radius vector of the planet's orbit - always sweeps the same area in a given time.

 These two laws Kepler published as early as 1609. Many years more of patient investigation were required before he found out the secret of the relation between planetary distances and times of revolution which his third law expresses. In 1618, however, he was able to formulate this relation also, as follows:

3. The squares of the distance of the various planets from the sun are proportional to the cubes of their periods of revolution about the sun.

 All these laws, it will be observed, take for granted the fact that the sun is the centre of the planetary orbits. It must be understood, too, that the earth is constantly regarded, in accordance with the Copernican system, as being itself a member of the planetary system, subject to precisely the same laws as the other planets. Long familiarity has made these wonderful laws of Kepler seem such a matter of course that it is difficult now to appreciate them at their full value. Yet, as has been already pointed out, it was the knowledge of these marvellously simple relations between the planetary orbits that laid the foundation for the Newtonian law of universal gravitation. Contemporary judgment could not, of course, anticipate this culmination of a later generation. What it could understand was that the first law of Kepler attacked one of the most time-honored of metaphysical conceptions - namely, the Aristotelian idea that the circle is the perfect figure, and hence that the planetary orbits must be circular. Not even Copernicus had doubted the validity of this assumption. That Kepler dared dispute so firmly fixed a belief, and one that seemingly had so sound a philosophical basis, evidenced the iconoclastic nature of his genius. That he did not rest content until he had demonstrated the validity of his revolutionary assumption shows how truly this great theorizer made his hypotheses subservient to the most rigid inductions.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.