Of Kepler, Galileo and the Sky’s Dark Labyrinth

Sky's Dark LabyrinthIt is no surprise to people who know me, that I am quite ignorant about history and geography, among other things. If you were to ask me what century Galileo lived in, I couldn’t tell you (16th - 17th). The possibility that Galileo and Kepler lived during the same time period and on the same continent, wouldn’t have even crossed my mind (they did). Worst of all, I had some vague notion that Newton lived before both Kepler or Galileo. And I had not ever heard of the name Tycho Brahe (Kepler took/stole Tycho’s measurements to develop his laws).

The past is like a black sphere to me. A big black pulpy sphere of ideas and facts. I have vague notions of historic events, I know some popular names and civilizations and some connections between them. The fault could be in the way I was taught (or not taught). Add to the fact that learning history and geography can rarely be an enjoyable process, I am not surprised I have turned out this way.

At some point, I thought to myself, that there had to be a better way. Good writers had to exist. People who had solved this problem for me and presented this information in a manner I could digest. And understand. Not memorize. But connect to. And make connections. In some sense, I wanted to learn relative history, not absolute history, i.e., events and ideas in relation to each other and their interpretations, and not just hard cold facts presented in a bullet point form.

Plus, I knew that I needed a hook. Something to start adding things to. It’s like trying to wind string together. By itself it’s a mess and gets all tangled. But take a wooden peg, and then you can start wrapping infinite string on it and it just forms layers on top of each other.

So, some years ago, I found my peg. It was science. I liked this new world. Where things are measured, calculated, estimated and presented in pictures, plots and equations. I involved my self in worrying about and understanding how to develop newer things, understanding complicated phenomenon and building on existing knowledge. In a sense, I was training myself to look at the future.

But what about the past? What about this mass of pulp that I knew I could learn tons from.

So, I started looking for books that would have science in them, but at the same time, wouldn’t neglect the personal connection. The emotional aspects. The interpretations. And present science, religion, history all in relation to each other.

And I found great books..Guns, Germs and Steel, Man who knew infinity, Music of Primes, Origin of Species, Life & Legacy of G.I. Taylor, Double Helix.. to name a few.

In the last couple of years, I’m realizing a slow pattern form in my head. I can now connect events. I can draw some conclusions or hypothesis for myself. I have learnt not to take things at their face value. And that there is always more than one reason for things to happen. The past is not just a series of random events. It’s a story. Environment, science, ideology, theology and technology, are all inter-connected. There’s a pattern.

Coming back to the book. Stuart Clark does a great job of telling the story of how Kepler and Galileo strived to convince the world of what they believed in – that truly the Sun did not revolve around the earth and that planets did not move in circular orbits. It’s based on the truth, but to make it into a novel, he takes certain liberties. But I’m okay with some romance and emotion thrown in my history lesson. I don’t doubt that they lived as emotional beings (and not robots) and had feelings and believed in various things which might seem ridiculous to us now.

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I know from talking to Genya, that in literature, they are in the process of mapping out the correspondence and letters between  philosophers and writers living in certain periods like the 17th and 18th century.

I think it would be a great idea to do the same for scientists living in the 17th, 18th and 19th century. And make this information digital. I’d be fascinated to read a letter from Galileo to Kepler. Or one from Newton to Leibniz.

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Teaser of a play..

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Some quotes:

Kepler (from Wikiquotes)

Nature uses as little as possible of anything.

We do not ask for what useful purpose the birds do sing, for song is their pleasure since they were created for singing. Similarly, we ought not to ask why the human mind troubles to fathom the secrets of the heavens. The diversity of the phenomena of nature is so great and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment.

I much prefer the sharpest criticism of a single intelligent man to the thoughtless approval of the masses.

I used to measure the heavens, now I measure the shadows of Earth.
Although my mind was heaven-bound, the shadow of my body lies here. (Epitaph)

Truth is the daughter of time, and I feel no shame in being her midwife.

I am indeed casting the die and writing the book, either for my contemporaries or for posterity to read, it matters not which: let the book await its reader for a hundred years; God himself has waited six thousand years for his work to be seen.

Galileo

I esteem myself happy to have as great an ally as you in my search for truth. I will read your work … all the more willingly because I have for many years been a partisan of the Copernican view because it reveals to me the causes of many natural phenomena that are entirely incomprehensible in the light of the generally accepted hypothesis. To refute the latter I have collected many proofs, but I do not publish them, because I am deterred by the fate of our teacher Copernicus who, although he had won immortal fame with a few, was ridiculed and condemned by countless people (for very great is the number of the stupid). (Letter to Kepler) 

Philosophy is written in this grand book — I mean the universe — which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering about in a dark labyrinth.

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Genya

    The letter-mapping is called “Mapping the Republic of Letters,” and includes people of all careers, since the disciplines weren’t so separate back then. I bet the correspondence of scientists has been studied in History of Science fields. Also, this seems like something German academics would be really into. Will let you know.

    • http://bhamla.com Saad Bhamla

      Thanks Genya ! A quick google throws up links of sites which have collected all the correspondences, but no one seems to have created a nice map.

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