Friday, October 13, 2017

Tycho Brahe & Johannes Kepler. Two shining lights in a sea of ignorance.





Tycho & Kepler: The Unlikely Partnership That Forever Changed Our Understanding of the Heavens – Kitty Ferguson (2002)

The knowledge that humanity has built up over our existence is always dependent on the sharing of information and the ability to spread the information as far as possible.  One never knows just who will be the person to grasp that bit of data and head off on a new intellectual adventure.  This is especially true in the sciences, where solitary scientists spent years of their life making very careful observations of the natural world and the heavens around us.  This hard data is the basis of all science.  Only when such rigorous data is obtained are the theories that seek to explain the data able to be verified, or rejected as not conforming to the verified data.  For decades, Tycho Brahe labored as the pre-eminent astronomer of his time, using his knowledge and position to build ever more elaborate and precise astronomical observation instruments.  His data, gathered after countless thousands of man-hours spent between him and his many assistants making nocturnal observations, spoke no truths in and of itself.  It was up to a younger astronomer and mathematician, Johannes Kepler, to utilize this storehouse of astronomical data in his quest for the truth about why and how the planets move through the sky, and bring about a revolution in the human understanding of the Universe.
The two men could not have been more dissimilar.  Tycho Brahe was, while not a royal, a member of a family that had been deeply ingrained in Denmark’s aristocracy, with members serving royal courts, acting as bishops in the church, and running fiefdoms in accordance with the King’s will.  Tycho Brahe grew up and was educated with the intent to have him become one of these servants to the crown, which included not only formal education, but the skills and tact necessary to commiserate with the royal courts of Europe and the egos found within.  He ingratiated himself with the king and was given many opportunities to pursue his intellectual and scientific curiosity, mostly abandoning the family demands that his class demanded.  Johannes Kepler was a more modest man.  He was not raised in the aristocracy, but his family members were well respected members of academia, business, and local religion.  Kepler did not have the connections available to Brahe.  He had to seek out his place in life.  He wanted to study the cosmos, but his family would not support it, hoping he would become one of the new class of professional men, and urging him to become a physician, a job more respectable than University professor at the time.
It is the life stories of these two men, and how they eventually became intertwined for posterity, that is the main thrust of this book.  It details both men’s childhoods, their educations, their attempts at scientific discovery, and their nearly endless troubles with the crown, the churches, and the profound level of ignorance that they found themselves surrounded with.  Tycho Brahe worked for decades, cataloguing a star chart the likes of which had never even been attempted by a human being.  In the later years of his life, and through countless setbacks, he accepted Johannes Kepler as his assistant.  In fact, he had chosen a man whose intellectual abilities rivaled the master’s, and who would guarantee the immortality of Tycho Brahe and his work.  Johannes Kepler used these precise measurements to understand what we now know as the Solar System.  He was the first human to do so, working out his three Laws of Motion, which are the basis for nearly all of modern astronomy. 
Johannes Kepler’s insights allowed him to describe our heavens in a way that had never been understood before.  Tycho Brahe had refuted the Ptolemaic system, which stated that the sun, planets, and stars all rotated around the Earth, which was the center of existence.  Tycho did not, however, postulate a solar system where the planets all rotate around the Sun.  Instead, he created a very complex system to explain the motions of the heavenly bodies.  It was not perfect.  Johannes Kepler, much to Brahe’s consternation. Supported the Copernican model of the solar system, in which the Sun stood in the center and the planets and stars all rotated around the Sun.  Kepler also suspected that the stars were much further away than the planets.  These and other observations were extremely revolutionary, not just for science, but for humanity at large.  Humans had been living under the Ptolemaic system for centuries because it aligned with the teachings of the catholic church.  The Earth was the center of all things, as it should be, since god created earth for humans and humans are his most perfect creation. Everything else is secondary. These types of circular arguments are all that any organized religion has to justify their own bullshit existence.  The church silenced any scientists that sought to understand the true reality of existence, even setting a few of them on fire. 
            Both Brahe and Kepler had to contend with a Europe in the midst of a Counter-Reformation.  The Calvinists and Lutherans that had started the Reformation, were now being attacked on all sides by the Holy Roman Empire and the ridiculous catholic church.  In catholic towns, protestants were banished or killed if they chose not to convert, with their heads hung on pikes for the world to see their “sin.”   In Protestant towns, Catholics were equally persecuted, all for supporting the Pope.  These two men of science, men of reason and enlightenment, and devout Christians both, were plagued on all sides by the stupid, petty, and evil wars that religions create among us to keep us in their debt and our money in their coffers. (It is still the same damn thing).  Not only did Kepler have to contend with religions and their stupidities, but he had such a tragic life.  He lost his first wife and around 9 children to disease over the span of twenty years.  His mother was accused and tried at age 72 for being a witch, by the ignorant Christians in her town.  Thank rationality and human ingenuity that Kepler was able to overcome all this and work on astronomy.
The bravest among us are the ones willing to stand up for their individuality and the ability to think for oneself.  Humanity is filled with countless people and organizations who seek to dampen human intelligence, to keep us stupid and slobbering at their crooked teats.  People like Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe who are strong enough and fortunate enough to hold their own against the tide of shit around them do so for the betterment of all humankind.  Without these two men our world would be a lot different.  The story of their lives and research is invaluable and anyone interested in the history of astronomy, or human thought, should read this book.

(This book can be purchased here:  https://www.amazon.com/Tycho-Kepler-Kitty-Ferguson/dp/0802713904 )

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