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Johannes Kepler

IN ANXIOUS AND UNCERTAIN times like ours, when it is difficult to find pleasure in humanity and the course of human affairs, it is particularly consoling to think of the serene greatness of a Kepler. Kepler lived in an age in which the reign of law in nature was by no means an accepted certainty. How great must his faith in a uniform law have been, to have given him the strength to devote ten years of hard and patient work to the empirical investigation of the movement of the planets and the mathematical laws of that movement, entirely on his own, supported by no one and understood by very few! If we would honor his memory worthily, we must get as clear a picture as we can of his problem and the stages of its solution.

Copernicus had opened the eyes of the most intelligent to the fact that the best way to get a clear grasp of the apparent movements of the planets in the heavens was by regarding them as movements around the sun conceived as stationary. If the planets moved uniformly in a circle around the sun, it would have been comparatively easy to discover how these movements must look from the earth. Since, however, the phenomena to be dealt with were much more complicated than that, the task was a far harder one. The first thing to be done was to determine these movements empirically from the observations of Tycho Brahe. Only then did it become possible to think about discovering the general laws which these movements satisfy.

To grasp how difficult a business it was even to find out about the actual rotating movements, one has to realize the following. One can never see where a planet really is at any given moment, but only in what direction it can be seen just then from the earth, which is itself moving in an unknown manner around the sun. The difficulties thus seemed practically unsurmountable.

Kepler had to discover a way of bringing order into this chaos. To start with, he saw that it was necessary first to try and find out about the motion of the earth itself. This would simply have been impossible if there had existed only the sun, the earth and the fixed stars, but no other planets. For in that case one could ascertain nothing empirically except how the direction of the straight sun-earth line changes in the course of the year (apparent movement of the sun with reference to the fixed stars). In this way it was possible to discover that these sun-earth directions all lay in a plane stationary with reference to the fixed stars, at least according to the accuracy of observation achieved in those days, when there were no telescopes. By this means it could also be ascertained in what manner the line sun-earth revolves round the sun. It turned out that the angular velocity of this motion went through a regular change in the course of the year. But this was not of much use, as it was still not known how the distance from the earth to the sun alters in the course of the year. It was only when they found out about these changes that the real shape of the earth’s orbit and the manner in which it is described were discovered.

Kepler found a marvelous way out of this dilemma. To begin with it was apparent from observations of the sun that the apparent path of the sun against the background of the fixed stars differed in speed at different times of the year, but that the angular velocity of this movement was always the same at the same point in the astronomical year, and therefore that the speed of rotation of the straight line earth-sun was always the same when it pointed to the same region of the fixed stars. It was thus legitimate to suppose that the earth’s orbit was a self-enclosed one, described by the earth in the same way every year—which was by no means obvious a priori. For the adherent of the Copernican system it was thus as good as certain that this must also apply to the orbits of the rest of the planets.

This certainty made things easier. But how to ascertain the real shape of the earth’s orbit? Imagine a brightly shining lantern M somewhere in the plane of the orbit. We know that this lantern remains permanently in its place and thus forms a kind of fixed triangulation point for determining the earth’s orbit, a point which the inhabitants of the earth can take a sight on at any time of year. Let this lantern M be further away from the sun than the earth. With the help of such a lantern it was possible to determine the earth’s orbit, in the following way:—

First of all, in every year there comes a moment when the earth E lies exactly on the line joining the sun S and the lantern M. If at this moment we look from the earth E at the lantern M, our line of sight will coincide with the line SM (sun-lantern). Suppose the latter to be marked in the heavens. Now imagine the earth in a different position and at a different time. Since the sun S and the lantern M can both be seen from the Earth, the angle at E in the triangle SEM is known. But we also know the direction of SE in relation to the fixed stars through direct solar observations, while the direction of the line SM in relation to the fixed stars was finally ascertained previously. But in the triangle SEM we also know the angle at S. Therefore, with the base SM arbitrarily laid down on a sheet of paper, we can, in virtue of our knowledge of the angles at E and S, construct the triangle SEM. We might do this at frequent intervals during the year; each time we should get on our piece of paper a position of the earth E with a date attached to it and a certain position in relation to the permanently fixed base SM. The earth’s orbit would thereby be empirically determined, apart from its absolute size, of course.

But, you will say, where did Kepler get his lantern M? His genius and Nature, benevolent in this case, gave it to him. There was, for example, the planet Mars; and the length of the Martian year—i.e., one rotation of Mars around the sun—was known. It might happen one fine day that the sun, the earth and Mars lie absolutely in the same straight line. This position of Mars regularly recurs after one, two, etc., Martian years, as Mars has a self-enclosed orbit. At these known moments, therefore, SM always presents the same base, while the earth is always at a different point in its orbit. The observations of the sun and Mars at these moments thus constitute a means of determining the true orbit of the earth, as Mars then plays the part of our imaginary lantern. Thus it was that Kepler discovered the true shape of the earth’s orbit and the way in which the earth describes it, and we who come after—Europeans, Germans, or even Swabians, may well admire and honor him for it.

Now that the earth’s orbit had been empirically determined, the true position and length of the line SE at any moment was known, and it was not so terribly difficult for Kepler to calculate the orbits and motions of the rest of the planets too from observations—at least in principle. It was nevertheless an immense work, especially considering the state of mathematics at the time.

Now came the second and no less arduous part of Kepler’s life work. The orbits were empirically known, but their laws had to be deduced from the empirical data. First he had to make a guess at the mathematical nature of the curve described by the orbit, and then try it out on a vast assemblage of figures. If it did not fit, another hypothesis had to be devised and again tested. After tremendous search, the conjecture that the orbit was an ellipse with the sun at one of its foci was found to fit the facts. Kepler also discovered the law governing the variation in speed during rotation, which is that the line sun-planet sweeps out equal areas in equal periods of time. Finally he also discovered that the square of the period of circulation around the sun varies as the cube of the major axes of the ellipse.

Our admiration for this splendid man is accompanied by another feeling of admiration and reverence, the object of which is no man but the mysterious harmony of nature into which we are born. As far back as ancient times people devised the lines exhibiting the simplest conceivable form of regularity. Among these, next to the straight line and the circle, the most important were the ellipse and the hyperbola. We see the last two embodied—at least very nearly so—in the orbits of the heavenly bodies.

It seems that the human mind has first to construct forms independently before we can find them in things. Kepler’s marvelous achievement is a particularly fine example of the truth that knowledge cannot spring from experience alone but only from the comparison of the inventions of the intellect with observed fact.

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