Book Review: Heavenly Intrigue

Article written: 12 Oct , 2005
Updated: 13 Sep , 2007

Tycho Brahe was a Danish nobleman who spent his life taking the most exact measurements of stars and planets then known. Being of high ranked noble birth, his family’s expectations were for Brahe to enter into court politics. Yet Brahe followed his own path, that being his love for astronomy. Even his slight divergence into alchemy quickly returned to astronomy on seeing the skies brighten from a supernova. Nevertheless, this being Europe of the early 1600’s, politics dominated lives. Brahe was exiled when a new king sat upon the Danish throne and he ended up in Prague as the mathematician of the court of the Holy Roman Empire.

At almost the same time, Johannes Kepler was using his intellect to escape his difficult and lowly lifestyle. Earning passage into a university, he excelled at mathematics and also fell into a love of astronomy and astrology. Kepler equally had difficulties in life and though he married a lady who had extensive land holdings, all their wealth disappeared. The politics of the time was again the culprit. Fortuitously, Kepler had already connected with Tycho Brahe who had given him an invitation to work and live together. Kepler, apparently without any other options, accepted. Much later, after Brahe’s death, Kepler used Brahe’s data to determine his now well known three laws of planetary motion.

Most references, in discussing Brahe and Kepler, provide little more information than the above. The Gilders, however, have gone digging. With the help of many experts and original documents, they build the characters of these scientists. Brahe may have been a nobleman, but he seems to have continually turned his back to the corresponding lifestyle. Kepler was not only smart with numbers but also had a tendency to quickly lose friends through a hot temper. Many details of their lives get reviewed; their parents, their places of birth, their schooling and their relationships. Yet this is not a simple biography of these two individuals. This is a case of murder. For the authors show that Kepler, with his temper and his craving for fame, wanted and needed Brahe’s data to pursue his own postulations about the shape of the heavens.

The key element in the Gilder’s book comes from recent investigations. Brahe’s crypt was recently repaired and, given this opportunity, some hairs were analyzed to try to deduce the cause of his death. The authors use tools of today’s forensic experts to understand a bit of what was happening with Brahe during his final days. In so doing, they combine these results with many pieces of circumstantial evidence to substantiate their belief that Kepler had the opportunity, means and motive. This case is a bit cold, actually more than 400 years old, but the Gilders make it fresh and exciting by reliving the times of these scientists and making the two much more than footnotes in a physics text.

This ability to enliven a well aged event sets this book apart. Very little science graces its pages. Some description of Brahe’s observatories and sextants show the state of the art in astronomical observation. A little on Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum give an idea of the philosophical issues of the times. For the most part, the Gilders dish up a finely flavoured selection of the pertinent points and issues that embellish their belief of a dastardly deed. A delicious undertone questions the drive of scientists and society. That is, just how far outside society’s mores do we allow researchers when the result adds knowledge or ability for all. The answer to this question might have changed in 400 years, but it is still relevant to ask today.

People come in all stripes and colours. Brilliant scientists might be lousy friends. Fantastic leaders might be so inept with numbers as to be unable to balance their own finances. This potpourri of characteristics bring spice to our lives. However, some spices are not as well liked as others. The murder that Joshua Gilder and Anne-Lee Gilder so boldly proclaim in their book Heavenly Intrigue is one such. Perhaps a golden opportunity brought together Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, but read this book and see how other opportunities may have prematurely ended their association.

Review by Mark Mortimer

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