The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 21 April 2017


by John Banville

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was one of the most significant figures in the history of astronomy and science. He turned his obsession with perfect Platonic solids into the basis for three laws of planetary motion based on the historically groundbreaking discovery that most planets travel around the Sun in elipses. It was a wrenching decades-long journey for him, and it was accomplished over a background of religious, political and personal upheaval. Kepler lived in various cities throughout a region we now call Eastern Europe, and which was then dominated by principalities and the vestiges of the Holy Roman Empire. A Lutheran, he was persecuted from all sides, starting with the Catholic Counter-Reformation. His mother, a cantankerous woman with a large family (families tended to be large), would spend years under suspicion of witchcraft, against which Kepler would defend her almost until her death. It was, to say the very least, a turbulent life. That his scientific brilliance rose from such a life is nothing short of remarkable.

A number of books have been written about Kepler. Perhaps the most famous was The Sleepwalkers, by Arthur Koestler. Here, novelist John Banville sets out to make Kepler's life accessible and human. Kepler's science is the long background arc of this novel (second of a trilogy about scientsits) about a man struggling against the conflicting storms of his life while living in the desire for celestial perfection and yet knowing he was on the verge of a contradictory breakthrough understanding. At the outset of this story, Kepler is traveling to the castle of Tycho Brahe, himself a brilliant observer of the heavens. Tycho's data on the orbit of Mars was more detailed than any before him. The man himself was a reprobate, and utterly convinced he could preserve the pre-Copernican universe. He hoped Kepler could do that for him. In the meantime, Kepler wanted access to the Mars data to confirm his own vision of a Copernican universe set in geometric perfection. In the end, it would be the relatively eccentric orbit of Mars that would be the downfall of the perfect celestial spheres, to be replaced by a yet more graceful understanding of planetary motions, one upon which we depend still today. From that point, it was a long struggle for Kepler to finish his mathematical summation of these discoveries, and to get those published. This is a novel, though, and not a biography. Despite its gritty reality, this is also a drama.

Banville depicts Kepler's struggle on top of a gritty world of political chaos, wars, random death from common illnesses, religious uncertainty, and Kepler's attempts to stubbornly preserve his dignity and vision. He had to remain committed to the science, to preserve the phenomena, in the face of patrons who only wanted astrology to tell their fortunes. (And, yes, this is relevant to science today.) Kepler's was a dark world. The reader can be forgiven for imagining the tale to take place on chill nights and dark rainy days. But Banville brings to life an era and a place we perhaps don't know as well as we like to think. Life at court might have been elegant. But that of a scientist trying to find patronage, to fund the publications of his own works, to eke out a living, was one long struggle. At the end, death almost feels a release. It is a dramatic contrast between the geometric beauty Kepler longed for, and the messy realities of a pre-industrial life. Recommended.

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Also by Banville: [The Sea] [Doctor Copernicus]

See Also: [Kepler's Somnium, translated by Edward Rosen]

[Other books of Science]