Kepler's Witch by James Connor

In a book about a 17th century astronomer the reader expects to learn something of the stars and planets along with the standard biographical details. Religious wars and witchcraft, both prevalent at that period, might show up as well.

Kepler’s Witch by James Connor examines the life of German astronomer Johannes Kepler. Born in the late 16th century, Kepler first noticed the wonders of the heavens when his mother showed him the comet of 1577 at the age of six.

Because of his inquisitive nature, his family saw that he received a good education. Religion became another early influence for the young astronomer as his family embraced the growing Lutheranism of the German states. Astronomy became a vehicle to try to work out the mind of God.

While mathematics and the heavens held an interest, Kepler pursued his studies intending to enter the ministry. He also became skilled in astrology by writing horoscopes, which he continued throughout his life. He took his first professional position as a teacher of mathematics in Graz, Austria.

Despite his duties as a teacher, Kepler continued his study of the stars as he felt they represented realm of God. He perceived “astronomy should be a practice done in the service of God.” His findings led him to write in support of Nicolaus Copernicus, who advocated a sun-centered universe when many other saw the Earth as the primary heavenly body. Kepler tried to work out how the six planets passed through the solar system. His study of planetary orbits continued until his death.

When the Counter-Reformation came to Graz to convert all to Catholicism, Kepler moved to Prague as he refused to give up his Lutheran faith. For a time he found work with Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe before being appointed imperial mathematician for the Holy Roman Emperor. During this time, he studied the orbit of Mars and worked to confirm the calculations done by Brahe. He also lent support to Galileo when the Italian astronomer faced off with Catholic authorities

Religious struggles continued to follow Kepler as warfare between Catholics and Protestants increased. He felt that Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics should come to a peaceful agreement. For this heretical thought, the Lutheran Church refused communion to him. These religious tensions forced Kepler to leave Prague for Linz, Austria, where he kept his post of imperial mathematician.

The later years of his life were filled with tragedy and difficulty. He watched his mother go through a lengthy trial for witchcraft. He lost his first wife and several children to various maladies of the day. He sought a quiet place to practice his religion. Kepler’s Witch, while not providing an in depth analysis of Kepler’s work (his planetary laws are barely mentioned), provides a solid look at the astronomer and his life, such as how his work on optics led the way for the later work of Isaac Newton.

In a continent divided by religious hatred, Kepler remained true to what he believed as he studied the heavenly realm leading the way for future discoveries. I enjoyed this biography as I had only heard in passing about Kepler. I did not realize his contributions to the scientific world. I also felt the religious tensions that Kepler faced as he held fast to his beliefs presented a difficult dilemma in seventeenth century Europe during the Thirty Years War.

Johannes Kepler had a brilliant mind when studying the heavens without the powerful telescopes of today, and he helped to establish the heliocentric universe at odds with the prevailing authorities of his day.

About the Author

Judy Klamm is a reference librarian in Central Reference. She has written book reviews for Library Journal and various Presbyterian publications.