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Johannes Kepler

Johannes Kepler Photo

Johannes Kepler was a German astronomer and scientist credited with the discovery of the three major laws of planetary motion. Kepler was born in 1571 in Weil der Stadt, Württemberg Germany in a family with declining wealth. Kepler’s father, Heinrich Kepler, was a mercenary soldier and barely managed to keep the family’s finances in order. Kepler was five when his father died in the war and was left to be taken care of by his mother Katharina Guldenmann, an inn keeper’s daughter. Kepler’s maternal grandfather’s inn also became a safe haven for mother and son for they spent most of their time at the inn. Kepler was increasingly fascinated with the travelers and merchants who visited the inn, and while serving at the inn, young Kepler would also manage to flaunt his mathematical abilities and take everyone by surprise.

Most of Kepler’s early education took place at a local school and at a seminary. His premature birth had rendered him feeling increasingly feeble and poorly and hence mostly close in the care of his mother.

From an early age, Kepler had been fascinated with Astronomy and took great interest in observing night skies and stars.  When he was only six years of age, Kepler observed the Great Comet of 1577 accompanied by his mother and a lunar eclipse at age 9. Following his early grammar education, Kepler was enrolled at Tübinger Stift at the University of Tübingen in 1589, with the intention of being ordained as a Lutheran Minister. Inspired by his education in religion, Kepler perceived the universe as God’s great plan, well defined and constructed. As part of his Christian teachings, Kepler believed it became imperative for man to understand God’s work. Hence he was convinced that God had laid out the plan of the universe according to a mathematical order, a belief held in concurrence with those of Plato and Pythagoras.

At Tubingen, Kepler was taught subjects such as Astronomy, Mathematics, Greek and Hebrew. He studied astronomy under the leading astronomers of the day, Michael Mästlin. At the time, the common view held and preached by astronomers was that of geocentric astronomy – which held that all seven planets revolved around earth in a fixed manner and position. Hence, astronomers concerned themselves only with the mathematical calculations of the planets and their positions and left the actually physical determination of said calculations to natural philosophers. Kepler aspired to resolve the discrepancy between the work of theologians/philosophers and astronomers by creating a unified method of studying and positioning planets in the universe.

Kepler was not known for shying from presenting his opinions. His tendency to resort to his individual outtake on matters pertaining to scientific studies and his constant support for Copernicus’s scheme meant that the scholarly authority at Tubingen housed doubts of Kepler’s religious orthodoxy and beliefs. It was then, upon Mästlin’s persuasion, that Kepler took up a professorship of astronomy in faraway Graz, Styria (now part of Austria), where he went in 1594. In 1596, Kepler wrote the first public defense of the Copernican system called Mysterium Cosmographicum, a move that garnered a lot of discussion and disapproval for the church of the time had already derided Copernicus’s theories in public. Kepler was eventually excommunicated in 1612.

During his time in Graz, Kepler planned more publication works governing his theories and ideologies about the planets and the geographical features of Earth. In 1600, upon hearing of his genius in physics and mathematics, Tycho Brahe, a Danish astronomer, invited Kepler to Prague to serve as a mathematical assistant. Kepler was to work at Tycho’s new observatory that was being built at the time. Under Tycho’s patronage, Kepler was assigned the task of studying planetary movements, specifically that of Mars and establish an understanding of the way the solar system functioned. In 1601, upon Brahe’s death, Kepler inherited his work and legacy and continued to track planetary movements.

From his studies in 1601, Johannes Kepler realized that the orbit of Mars was an ellipse which led him to establish what is now referred to as Kepler’s First Law and the position of the sun let to Kepler’s Second Law. Kepler’s Third Law was published a decade later, which established the relationship between the period of two planets and their distance from the sun.

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