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Perspectives on Science 10.2 (2002) 228-240

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Kepler Then and Now

Owen Gingerich
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

In the late 1950s the distinguished novelist Arthur Koestler became exceedingly vexed that the public seemed to know so little of Kepler's life and works. While "Kepler and Galileo were the two giants on whose shoulders Newton had stood," why was "the name of one of the giants familiar to every schoolboy, but the second known to only a small number of intellectuals?" (Koestler 1975, p. 948). Koestler deliberately set out to redress the imbalance with his engagingly written, rather polemical book, The Sleepwalkers, published in 1959.

It is fascinating to compare the relative status of Galilean and Keplerian English translations then and now. The principal works of Galileo had already been translated by Thomas Salusbury in 1661, and the Sidereus nuncius in 1880. Fresh English versions of the Dialogo appeared in 1953. Meanwhile excerpts of Kepler's Epitome astronomiae Copernicanae and his Harmonice mundi had finally appeared in 1952 in volume 16 of Great Books of the Western World. Excerpts of key letters were available, and a minor astrological work. Kepler's greatest work, Astronomia nova, was available only in Latin or in German.

In the last four decades a few minor Galilean works have found their way into English, but a veritable cornucopia of Keplerian translations has come off the presses. The Secret of the Universe, New Astronomy, Optics, The Harmony of the World, Conversation with Galileo's Sidereal Messenger, and The Dream are the major ones, but among several relatively minor works, theedition of The Defense of Tycho against Ursus proves to be one of the significant analyses of Kepler's thought.

Certainly the lively and accessible style of Koestler's treatment helped stimulate interest in Kepler, as did the quadricentennial celebrations of Kepler's birth in 1971. And in that year Bernard Cohen pointed to another [End Page 228] reason: Kepler's philosophical approach had strong resonances in that of Einstein. In writing of his "admiration for this splendid man," Einstein stated, "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" (1930, p. 266).

For whatever reasons, these decades have been golden years for Keplerian scholarship. And certainly the backbone of these researches has been the accessibility of the texts and the letters in the on-going series of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, Johannes Kepler Gesammelte Werke. The sequence of six volumes of correspondence, edited by Max Caspar, was finally finished in 1959, the same year that Caspar's definitive biography Kepler appeared in Doris Hellman's English translation. Since that time nine additional volumes have appeared, the most recent two being Band XI, 2 (1993) with the calendars, prognostications, and the posthumously published Somnium, and Band XX, 2 (1998), a thick volume with Volker Bialas' transcription of manuscripts relating to the theory of Mars, this latter being an extension of the originally-envisioned series. Another very useful volume from the same auspices is Jürgen Hamel's supplement (1998) to the second (1968) edition of the Bibliographia Kepleriana. The supplement lists hundreds of articles about Kepler either missed in that bibliography or published between 1967 and 1996. It also gives an extensive provenance list of former owners of Kepler volumes, plus detailed present institutional locations for the various Kepler titles. Thus we can find that the Tabulae Rudolphinae leads the list as the most common with 230 locations, followed by the Astronomiae pars optica, Harmonice mundi, Astronomia nova, and De stella nova. Similarly we can discover that the State Library in Stuttgart holds the largest number of titles, followed by Harvard University.

Kepler's first substantive book, his Mysterium cosmographicum, was the first in the recent surge of translations. 1 A. M. Duncan's translation is entitled The Secret of the Universe (1981). (More recently Barker and Goldstein have proposed that The Sacred Mystery of the Cosmos would capture Kepler's [End Page 229] nuances...


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