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Issue Date:  October 8, 2004

By James A. Connor
Harper San Francisco,
401 pages, $24.95
Biography of Kepler shows man of rare integrity

Astronomer saw science and spirituality as one

Reviewed by JOHN L. TRELOAR

James Connor early in Kepler’s Witch shares an encounter with a German student on a train from Stuttgart to Prague. During the course of their conversation the student asks Connor, “Why Kepler?”

Connor’s reflections concerning this question succinctly summarize his book. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) “is the man who finally confirmed Copernicus. He made a first, close attempt at defining a law of gravity. But above that, he was a man who contemplated in mathematics the glory of God. His life, his work, his mathematics were always about God. Everything he did was about God. Kepler found God in the hidden mathematical harmonies of the universe in as deep a way as he found God in the revelations of scripture. This is a man worth knowing.”

In 15 chapters comprised first of biographical narrative text by Connor followed by brief translations of Kepler’s writings, Connor tells Kepler’s story and allows the scientist to speak for himself. Through the lens of the witchcraft trial of Kepler’s mother, Connor delves into Kepler’s life in such a way that the scientist becomes a person of flesh and bone. Kepler lived a deeply spiritual life based on the same integrity demanded by his science. Three themes dominate Connor’s biography. First, mathematics, especially geometry, reveals the ordered and ordering mind of God. Not only scripture but also science speaks God’s word as God expresses it in the mathematical structure of the created world. Secondly, religious controversy during the German Reformation and Counter Reformation distorted the truth of God’s universe. Finally, family and social relationships as sources of pain and agony seem to contradict the order God intended for creation.

Connor’s explanations of Kepler’s accomplishments in mathematical science and astronomy make complicated material accessible to non-professionals. As court mathematician to the Holy Roman emperor, Kepler provided original science to the court. Although one might think of this position as lucrative, Kepler actually lived much of his life in poverty. The royals promised salaries and privileges that often failed to materialize due to the empire’s constant internal battles concerning religious ideology.

Since conflicts between Protestants and Catholics provide much of the background context for Kepler’s life, he had to negotiate science sometimes in the Lutheran milieu while at other times, when the empire turned Catholic, he faced different conditions for his work. He offended Lutherans and Catholics alike. Because he would not accept the Formula of Concord without some reservations, he was excommunicated from the Lutheran communion. Because he remained faithful to his Lutheranism throughout his life, he experienced constant suspicion from Catholics. Despite friendship with a number of members of the Society of Jesus as a professional mathematician, they never converted him to Catholicism. Even though Kepler gained respect from both factions for his scientific achievement, he alienated both of them with his integrity.

When one examines Kepler’s personal life -- family and friends -- one realizes that he often appears as Job. He was betrayed by his friends, saw many family deaths and was a victim of shifting political winds. Connor uses Kepler’s mother’s witchcraft trial as an explanatory centerpiece for Kepler’s family relationships. His scientific, religious character, so imbued with honesty and integrity, faced a unique challenge in that trial.

Connor presents Kepler’s mother as a cantankerous old woman who habitually irritated her neighbors; her personality eventually caused the neighbors to accuse her of witchcraft on trumped-up charges. Since Kepler had so carefully guarded his integrity in scientific and religious thought, such charges founded on lies and hysteria were particularly odious. His mother’s condemnation as a witch together with all the other family tragedies led him into depression and shortened his life.

Connor’s biography gives a scholarly but popular view of a complex human being and an even more complex time. The book is popular enough in style that one could read it for recreation, but it is also informative enough that scholars will find much about Kepler and his times that is generally unknown. Whenever one speaks of any great scientist, one must always realize that science depends on a context. Connor’s achievement shows that Kepler’s science relies firmly on his situation. The book’s excellence rests in the manner in which Connor maps out Kepler’s spiritual journey as a background for his scientific thought.

In a letter to an anonymous nobleman, Kepler explains his life and work: “I cannot be hypocritical in questions of conscience. … I want no part in the fury of the theologians. I shall not judge brothers; for even if they stand or they fall, they are still my brothers and brothers of the Lord. Since I am not a teacher of the church, I should pardon others, speak well of others and interpret favorably, rather than indict, vilify and distort.”

Connor shows that Kepler lived this charity, for his science taught him to stand humbly before God and strive for the truth God manifests in nature.

Jesuit Fr. John L. Treloar is the academic dean of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif. His research specialties are late medieval and Renaissance philosophy.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004

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