Monday, November 9, 2020

Review of Kepler's Witch: An Astronomer's Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother by James A. Connor

This review is written by Eugene Kernes

Book can be found in:
Genre = History
Intriguing Connections = 1) Biographies: Auto, Memoir, and Other Types

Elaborate Description

Kepler’s life is the core of this book. Weaved from Kepler’s journal is a story of a particular time in the Christian faith and Kepler’s response. Cycles of productivity and depression due to various circumstances enabled Kepler to write a variety of books. Portions of the science, novelty, and philosophy in those books are summarized in this book, but as this book is about the life of Kepler, detail regarding the intimates of his insights are lacking. The way Kepler’s insights interacted with the political sphere of his life are ubiquitous.

As Kepler’s father was rarely home, Kepler’s mother, Katharina, took care of him and his siblings. It was when Katharina took Kepler to see a comet that potentially inspired Kepler to become an astronomer. But the character type that she passed onto Kepler was extreme stubbornness. When they believed they were right, they would not let it go. With Katharina, it can be expressed as her innocence of witchcraft as she came back to her city and thought that the truth would win. With Kepler it was heresy, because he would not agree to a bit of the church’s stance, he would fight for his intellectual freedom.

The belief in witches was a worldview rather than a superstition. The worldview held that for every problem, there must have been some benefactor. People blamed as various problems on witches, and as witches had caused the problem, they demanded the which to rectify it. The choosing of who was a witch was based on oddity. As communities rarely saw different people, the individuals in the community which were deemed odd became highly likely to be considered as witches. 75% of witches were women with the description of a witch matching the description of an old women during those times.

It was conflict with the neighbors that caused witches to be persecuted, not a different faith. For Katharina, it was partly due to her herbal medicine and jealously of Kepler that caused the community to turn against her. Kepler was an imperial mathematician with his own problem of heresy. The community might have wanted to accuse Kepler, but he had powerful political influence. Katharina did not have such influence, and as Kepler’s influence was far away, the community could make her suffer. Only with powerful political influence could an accused be spared. Katharina’s trial was much like other witch trials. Many trial claims were not based on witness accounts, but because they were a presumed requirement for a witch.

Kepler’s trouble with the church was based on disagreed with a small part of the church’s ideology, the ubiquity doctrine. His greatest crime, wanting peace between Christian sects. At a time when every denomination was looking for war, peace was heresy. For Kepler’s believes, he was excommunicated from his own church, and would not convert to the Catholic church which wanted him. He remained a devout Lutheran, and as a Lutheran debate was normal. At the time, the church was a normal place for intellectual discussion.

Lutherans appear to follow the original understanding of Christianity, that faith was a matter of personal conscience. To preserve a faith and prevent a battle of confusion, the church was needed to create some uniformity. The reformation occurred because too much power was held in the authorities. Luther revived the individual faith and individual conscience ideas. Kepler’s disagreement with the Lutheran church should have been acceptable, but his own church required conformity.

As Kepler reasoned, religion should be protected by theological debate, not soldiers. The religious war caused difficulties with intellectual freedom. Kepler recognized that any disagreement was cause for denunciation. Agreeing little bit with a different faith was cause for heresy.

The science of Kepler cannot be easily separated from his faith. Kepler was thinking of planets and stars because that got him closer to the secret of God’s mind. The solutions for his work and faith, Kepler would need to study and find the solutions on his own. He could not be told to believe in an idea for credulous reasons. We would not take a position he did not fully believe in.

Astronomy at the time was about appearances in space while physics was about movements on earth. Kepler wanted to understand what actually happened, rather than their appearance. When Kepler was lent a telescope, he formed a group to act as a sort of controlled experiment. Each person taking turns with the observations and sharing the findings after everyone had taken their own observations. An interesting note on Kepler is that he formed the bases of the 1st and 2nd law of gravity, which was to be named later by Newton.

Part of Kepler’s astronomy work included the Rudolphine Tables which used his mentors and colleague’s data. The data of Tycho Brahe, like all astronomer’s data, was well guarded. Kepler wanted the data to be more open, but the astronomer’s data was connected to their reputations. Although Kepler was never rich, and his family was usually impoverished due to the imperial promised income that never came, another source of income for Kepler was astrology. Although skeptical of astrology, he was known for pretty accurate predictions about an uncertain future.

This book covered Kepler’s life at every juncture. From the difficulty of his work to the tragedies of losing many children, Conner wrote a complete picture of what made Kepler. From family to politics, from witchcraft to religion, Kepler’s responses were well explained. Short synopsis of the scientific achievements were provided.

Book Details

Edition ISBN:  9780060750497
Pages to read:   366
Publication:     2005
1st Edition:      2004
Format:            Paperback

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall           5