Thursday, December 09, 2004


Jepp, a mysterious dwarf, reveals to us that the "Crystalline Spheres" model of the cosmos, taken as scientific fact since the time of the Greeks, has been shattered, and that astronomers are struggling for a model to take its place in the history of science.

It is the year 1600 AD, and the most accomplished living astronomer is one of Europe’s richest, and most decadent, men, Tycho Brahe. Brahe is an eccentric and a despot, lording over a palace of oddities (while wearing a solid gold nose, to replace his own, which had been lost in a duel). His cosmographic model, in which the sun circles the earth, has gained favor with the Emperor and the Church.

Into his castle comes Johannes Kepler, a severe man, devoutly religious, seeking to make use of Tycho’s celebrated celestial maps. Kepler touts his own map of the cosmos, a sun centered model in which the orbits of the planets correlate with a number of "perfect" geometric shapes. He believes that the geometric perfection of these orbits reflect the perfection of their Creator. The model is Kepler’s hymn to God, a hymn which Tycho finds foolish.

Tycho dares Kepler to solve the mystery of the bizarre orbit of Mars, and Kepler replies that he can explain Mars’s orbit in eight days. The dwarf Jepp (Tycho’s pet) responds cryptically that eight days will give way to eight years, and in "eight minutes," Kepler’s vision will be undone.

A year passes and Kepler has still not solved the problem of Mars. According to his model, all orbits form a perfect circle, but no circle will encompass Mars. Thundering into Tycho’s chambers in frustration, Kepler finds the old bombast dying. It seems that Tycho has been at a regal dinner party, drinking heavily, and refused to rise to relieve himself, for fear of insulting his host. As a result, Tycho’s bladder had burst, leaving him poisoned, hallucinating, and at death’s door.

Tycho dies in Kepler’s arms, but not before making an uncharacteristically desperate plea, "Let me not seem to have lived in vain." Kepler records his words, takes up the mantle of Imperial Astronomer, and returns to his work.

As Jepp predicted, eight days does give way to eight years, and Kepler is still working on the orbit of Mars in 1608. The discrepancy between the mapped orbit of Mars and Keppler’s model is… eight minutes of arc. The dwarf’s prophecy has come true! Kepler is visited by the ghost of Tycho, who lambastes him for being enslaved by the geometric model. Taunted by the ghost and the dwarf, Kepler is forced to realize that there is no circle to fit the orbit of Mars, because Mars does not travel in a circle His "perfect" model is a failure.

Tycho’s ghost asks if both men have, then, failed in their life’s work Kepler responds that neither men have lived in vain, because their efforts (Tycho’s observations and Kepler’s computations) have combined to uncover the true nature of the solar system (a sun centered model with elliptical orbits), and that there could be no finer tribute to God and Man than revealing the hidden truths of the Universe.


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