Cover image for Kepler's witch : an astronomer's discovery of cosmic order amid religious war, political intrigue, and the heresy trial of his mother
Kepler's witch : an astronomer's discovery of cosmic order amid religious war, political intrigue, and the heresy trial of his mother
Connor, James A.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : HarperSanFrancisco, [2004]

Physical Description:
xiii, 402 pages : illustrations, map ; 24 cm
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QB36.K4 C66 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Set against the backdrop of the witchcraft trial of his mother, this fascinating biography of Johannes Kepler, "the Protestant Galileo" and 16th century mathematician and astronomer who discovered the three basic laws of planetary motion, reveals the surprisingly spiritual nature of the quest of early modern science.

In the style of Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter, Connor's book vividly brings to life the tidal forces of Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and social upheaval in the early days of the modern world. The wall between Science and Religion has not always been so high. While in the 21st century, we have become used to mechanical solar systems and Godless universes, in the early days of the scientific revolution, many scientists explored the natural world for spiritual reasons. This was especially true for Johannes Kepler, who discovered the three basic laws of planetary motion. He was in many ways the Protestant Galileo, persecuted for his support of the Copernican system. Along the way, a neighbour lady accused his mother of witchcraft, and Kepler abandoned his post as the Imperial mathematician for a time to defend her. James Connor, an author whose star is on the rise, tells the story of Kepler's life as a pilgrimage, a spiritual journey into the modern world through war and disease and terrible injustice, a journey reflected in the evolution of Kepler's geometrical model of the cosmos into a musical model, harmony into greater harmony. The leitmotif of the witch trial stitches the biography together and adds a third dimension to Kepler's life by setting his personal life deep within his own times. The acts of this trial, including Kepler's letters and the accounts of the witnesses, have been published in their original German dialects but have never before been translated into English. As Dava Sobel did as part of her work on Galileo's Daughter, Connor has translated the witch trial documents into English for the first time.

David Koch, the Deputy Principal Investigator for NASA's Kepler Mission, provides a foreword revealing Kepler's many contributions to the world of science. Kepler is a man whose name every student of science knows, an icon of the modern age, but few know anything the man himself.

Author Notes

He lives in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania with his wife, two border collies, and two stray cats. He is currently teaching English at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. For eighteen years, he was a Catholic priest and a member of the Jesuit Order, where he served as a teacher, worked in parishes, and ministered to Native peoples---notably the Shuswap, Nez Perce, Moses Lake, and Navajo. A winner of the Iowa Journal of Literary Studies Essay Award, he has published in Traditional Home Magazine, The Iowa Review, and has a collection of short stories entitled GOD'S BREATH AND OTHER STORIES.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was a towering figure in early modern science, a contemporary of Tycho Brahe and Galileo who discovered the fundamental laws governing the motion of the planets. Connor goes further, offering a remarkably human portrait of Kepler, grounded in the day-to-day life of a mathematician and astronomer simply trying to make a living and navigate the turbulent politics of Counter-Reformation Europe while staying true to his own ideals. This is not the Kepler one might know from textbooks Connor's Kepler is a man driven by his deep Lutheran faith, yet ultimately excommunicated for his desire to reach out to Catholics and Calvinists; a man who seems less concerned with greatness than truth and a little bit of peace and happiness. As Connor writes in his preface, the book is as much a piece of literary nonfiction about the "kitchen details" of life in the early 17th century as it is a biography of a great astronomer. As the engaging narrative ranges from life amid religious unrest in Prague to the "trumped-up" witchcraft charges against Kepler's mother, one finds oneself lost in a world haunted by shadows and fears, yet which holds the promise of a new era of reason and enlightenment. This portrait poses a striking contrast to that in Heavenly Intrigue (Forecasts, March 13), which dubiously purports that Kepler was a virtual psychopath who killed Brahe to obtain his secret data. Maps. Agent, Giles Anderson. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Born in 1571 during the Reformation to a half-mad mother and a brutal father, Kepler was stricken with smallpox at age three, leaving him sickly and frail for the rest of his life. Ignored by his family, and with a personality and appearance that left him all but friendless, Kepler sought refuge in religion and his love of astronomy. Denied the ministry, he turned his attention to the heavens, thus ensuring his place among the giants of astronomy. Kepler was the first to apply the laws of physics to planetary movements, says Connor (English, Kean Univ.); he was the first modern astrophysicist. An intensely religious man who always sought to show God's will in all that he did, and a Lutheran whose views were often contrary to both Protestant and Catholic doctrine, Kepler spent much of his life fleeing to escape persecution, or seeking a royal sponsor for support and protection. His tumultuous relationship with royal astronomer Tycho Brahe offers fascinating insights into the human failings of these scientific giants. Kepler had to defend his herbalist mother against witchcraft charges, hence the title. Informative and entertaining. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. General readers. C. G. Wood formerly, Eastern Maine Community College

Booklist Review

On his deathbed, one of history's greatest astronomers voiced no satisfaction over his achievements in advancing planetary physics but a great deal of frustration over his lifelong powerlessness to resolve religious conflict. A formeresuit, Connor here probes the dark religious events that enshrouded the brilliant scientific career ofohannesepler. The forces of Reformation and Counter-Reformation repeatedly convulsed the European world in whichepler pursued his pioneering research, but Connor chiefly scrutinizes the religious turmoil peculiar toepler's life. Readers see, for instance, howepler fought to maintain friendships with both Catholics and Protestants, how he struggled to harmonize his own sophisticated faith with his wife's simple piety, how he suffered when his intellectual openness cost him his cherished communion as a Lutheran, and, finally, how he jeopardized his reputation to defend an eccentric mother accused of witchcraft. Rich with new translations ofepler's journals, poetry, and correspondence, this compelling narrative will leave readers wondering how a man so enmeshed in religious travail ever managed to penetrate the mystery of planetary orbits, to blaze a path toward calculus, and to formulate the founding principles of optics. But nothing will astound readers more than the way the religiously vexedepler persisted in interpreting his discoveries as evidence of the divine harmony in the universe! Connor indeed argues that precisely because he framed his science in the language of worship,epler has received less than his due from rationally minded scholars. This luminous biography will help remedy that injustice. --Bryce Christensen Copyright 2004 Booklist

Library Journal Review

Johannes Kepler confirmed the Copernican universe, laying the foundation for Newton's later laws of physics; calculated the true shape of the solar system, along with the basic laws of planetary motion; and was mathematician to Emperor Rudolph II for 11 years (1601-12). But as former Jesuit priest Connor makes clear, he was also an extremely spiritual Protestant living in a time of violent religious clashes-the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. While Kepler was sorting out his religious beliefs (a Lutheran, he sympathized with aspects of the Calvinist belief system, promoting a "live and let live" philosophy that was totally unacceptable to any of the churches of the time), his elderly mother was tried for witchcraft. Connor uses this event to show that Kepler spent as much time on his faith as on his science. More so than Dava Sobel in Galileo's Daughter-with which this book is being compared-Connor offers religious interpretation of a scientific figure. At the same time, he successfully demonstrates Kepler's ability to develop scientific theory by interpreting data based on science (primarily mathematics), not on religion, as many of his predecessors did. Recommended for academic and larger public libraries.-Hilary D. Burton, formerly with Lawrence Livermore National Lab., Livermore, CA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Kepler's Witch An Astronomer's Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother Chapter One With Unspeakable Sadness Where Kepler's mother, Katharina, is accused of witchcraft by a former friend, which the gossip of the townspeople whips into a fury against her. On September 28, 1620, the Feast of St. Wenceslas, the executioner showed Katharina Kepler the instruments of torture, the pricking needles, the rack, the branding irons. Her son Johannes Kepler was nearby, fuming, praying for it to be over. He was forty-nine and, with Galileo Galilei, one of the greatest astronomers of the age -- the emperor's mathematician, the genius who had calculated the true orbits of the planets and revealed the laws of optics to the world. Dukes listened to him. Barons asked his advice. And yet when the town gossips of Leonberg set their will against him, determined to take the life of his mother on trumped-up charges of witchcraft, he could not stop them. Still, he never gave up trying, and in that he was a good deal like his mother. It was five years into the trial, and the difficult old woman would not bend -- she admitted nothing. Not surprising, for if truth be told, Katharina Kepler was a stubborn, cranky, hickory stick of a woman who suffered from insomnia, had an excess of curiosity, and simply couldn't keep her nose out of other people's business. She was known to be zänkisch -- quarrelsome -- and nearly everyone said she had a wicked tongue. Perhaps that was why her old friends and neighbors were so willing to accuse her of witchcraft, why five years before they had forced her at sword point to perform an illegal magical ritual just to gather evidence that she was indeed a witch, and why they eventually handed her over to the magistrate for trial. The ordeal consisted of two years of accusations and five years of court action, from 1613, when the accusations of handing out poison potions were first made, to 1620, when they convicted Katharina and sentenced her to the territio verbalis, the terrorization by word, despite all Johannes could do. There were tidal forces at work in this little town. The events around the duchy of Württemberg would gather into themselves all the violent changes of the day, for by their conviction of Katharina, the consistory (the duke's council), the magistrates, and the Lutheran church authorities had bundled together their fear of Copernicus and their anger against Johannes, a man they had already convicted of heresy. The Reformation, like an earthquake, had cracked Western Christianity, stable since the fifth century, into Catholics and Protestants, and the Protestants into Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists, Anglicans, and Anabaptists, with the many camps drifting apart like tectonic plates. Even the heavens had begun changing, and Kepler had been a part of that change. Copernicus, an obscure Polish priest, had published his On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, which had dethroned the earth from its place at the universe center and sent it spinning through the heavens like a top revolving around the sun. Fear ruled Europe -- fear of difference, fear of change. And there, in one corner of Swabia in southern Germany, the mother of a famous man, a mathematician and scientist, a respected, pious Lutheran, nearly paid with her life. Like his mother, Johannes was willing to fight. He had taken a hand in her defense, writing much of the brief himself. He was not present at the sentencing, though, for he would not have been permitted to accompany her to the territio. But only a few days before, Kepler had petitioned the Vogt, the magistrate, of Güglingen, the town where the trial had taken place, to get on with it, so when it was over old Katharina could finally have some peace. Early that morning, she was led to the torturer by Aulber, the bailiff of Güglingen, who was accompanied by a scribe for recording her confession, and three court representatives. The torturer, with the bailiff standing to one side, then shouted at her for a long time, commanding her to repent and tell the truth and threatening her if she didn't. He showed her each instrument and described in detail all that it would do to her body -- the prickers, the long needles for picking at the flesh; the hot irons for branding; the pincers for pulling and tearing at the body; the rack; the garrote; and the gallows for hanging, drawing, and quartering. He adjured her to repent, to confess her crimes, so that even if she would not survive in this world, she could at least go to God with a clear conscience. Meanwhile Johannes, almost insane with rage and fear, waited in town for the ordeal to be over. Kepler was a slight man with a jaunty goatee and a dark suit with a starched ruff collar; he was slightly stooped from bending over his calculations and he squinted from bad eyesight, a parting shot from a childhood bout with smallpox. His hands were gnarled and ugly, again a result of the pox. Perhaps he paced as he waited for news, shook his fists at the empty room. Essentially a peaceful man, he was given to rages when he knew an injustice was being done. After all, these were his neighbors, his childhood friends, not strangers, who had forced this trial. The accusation, the trial, the conviction, and the sentence were all the work of hateful people, people who had wanted some petty vengeance, people who had seen their chance to get their hands on his mother's small estate. It was the work of a fraudulent magistrate, a good friend of the accusers, and of a judicial system gone mad. Being imperial mathematician meant that the courts in Leonberg couldn't touch him, but they could do as they liked with his mother. Imperial protections went only so far. In the end, no mere scientist could expect that much security. Thirteen years later, the other great astronomer, Galileo, would face charges of heresy before the Inquisition in Rome ... Kepler's Witch An Astronomer's Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother . Copyright © by James Connor. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from Kepler's Witch: An Astronomer's Discovery of Cosmic Order amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother by James A. Connor All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Forewordp. xi
With Thanksp. xiii
Introduction: So Why Kepler?p. 1
Letter from Kepler to the Senate of Leonberg, January 1, 1616p. 7
I With Unspeakable Sadnessp. 13
Testimony of Donatus Gultlinger, Citizen of Leonberg, Given to Luther Einhorn, Magistrate of Leonberg, 1620p. 19
Testimony of Benedict Beutelsbacher, German Schoolmaster of Leonberg, 1620p. 20
II Appeired a Terrible Cometp. 23
Kepler's Horoscope for Himself, November 1597p. 31
III Born with a Destinyp. 35
From Kepler's Astronomia Nova, 1609p. 47
IV Taken by a Forceful Passionp. 49
Letter from Kepler to the Theology Faculty at Tubingen, February 28, 1594p. 69
V In Many Respects So Honorablep. 71
Letter from Kepler to Michael Mastlin, February 10, 1597p. 85
VI Married under Pernicious Skiesp. 87
Letter from Kepler to Michael Mastlin, June 11, 1598p. 101
Letter from Kepler to Herwart von Hohenberg, December 9, 1598p. 102
VII An Archimedean Calculation of Motionp. 107
From Kepler's Eulogy on the Death of Tycho Brahe, October 24, 1601p. 141
VIII When in Heaven the Flock of Secret Moversp. 145
Letters from Kepler to Johann Georg Brengger, October 4, 1607; November 30, 1607p. 167
IX Living Creatures on the Starsp. 169
Letter from Kepler to Tobias Scultetus, April 13, 1612p. 189
X Who with Tender Fragrancep. 193
Letter from Kepler to an Unknown Nobleman October 23, 1613p. 227
From Kepler's Journal, 1614p. 229
XI To Quiet the Gossipp. 231
Letter from Luther Einhorn, Magistrate of Leonberg, to the Duke of Wurttemberg, October 22, 1616p. 255
XII If One Practices the Fiend's Tradep. 259
Letter from Kepler to Herzog Johann Friedrich von Wurttemberg, November 1620p. 271
XIII With Present Maladies of Body and Soulp. 275
From Kepler's Harmonice Mundi, Book V, 1619p. 307
XIV To Examine the Secrets of Naturep. 311
Letter from Kepler to Johann Matthias Bernegger, February 15, 1621
From Kepler's Journal, 1623p. 339
XV My Duty under Dangerp. 341
Notesp. 365
Kepler Time Linep. 377
Source Readingsp. 381
Indexp. 385