(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

God was never far from Johannes Kepler’s thoughts, either in his life or in his science. It was therefore typical that he attributed his momentous meeting with Tycho Brahe in 1600 to Divine Providence. The ensuing interactions between these men of radically different temperaments and scientific visions were often tumultuous, permeated with dramatic misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and wounded pride. Nevertheless, as a Spanish proverb has it, God writes straight with crooked lines, and both men came to see the hand of God in their relationship. On Brahe’s side, he came to appreciate Kepler’s mathematical genius and illuminating astronomical imagination as the means to his own immortality. From Kepler’s perspective, he was grateful for God’s goodness in granting him access to Brahe’s planetary data, which turned out to be the keys he needed to unlock the secrets of the solar system.

Though they were not collaborators in any conventional sense and though they did not see eye-to-eye on their fragile union, their interaction was synergistic in that they accomplished more for astronomy together than they did apart. Their interaction was also serendipitous, as both discovered what neither was, at first, seeking. Convinced that the heliocentric system violated basic physical laws and that the geocentric system needed revision, Brahe proposed a hybrid geoheliocentric system in which the Sun, with its orbiting planets, circled a stationary Earth. Kepler wanted to use Brahe’s data to verify his modification of the Copernican system based on the interspersing of perfect three-dimensional forms among the planetary orbits. Neither of these models turned out to be true, but Kepler’s search for a system that matched Brahe’s data led to a model neither of them had initially imagined.

At first glance, Kitty Ferguson seems an unlikely person to tell the stories of these two astronomers. Her early training was in music, and for many years she was a professional singer, working under the direction of such composers as Igor Stravinsky, Zoltan Kodaly, and Leonard Bernstein. It was not until her mid-forties that she began researching and writing about science. Her eight-year-old daughter’s science project on black holes was the precipitating event that led to Ferguson’s first book, Black Holes in Spacetime (1991), written for young adults but praised by the world’s expert on black holes, Stephen Hawking. Ferguson met Hawking, who agreed to cooperate with her on her next book, Stephen Hawking: Quest for a Theory of Everything (1992), the first Hawking biography (also written for the youth market). Her next three books, Prisons of Light: Black Holes (1996), The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion, and the Search for God (1997), and Measuring the Universe (1999), were written for general audiences and manifested her evolving skills as a popularizer of science. Tycho and Kepler capitalizes on her interests in astronomy, biography, history, even music, as Kepler believed in the “music of the spheres.”

Both Brahe and especially Kepler have been popular subjects for biographers. Ferguson’s dual biography is not meant to supplant such definitive works as Victor Thoren’s The Lord of Uraniborg: A Biography of Tycho Brahe (1990) and Max Casper’s Johannes Kepler (1948). Instead, she hopes to communicate to nonscientists the complexities of the personalities, lives, achievements, and times of these two astronomers who helped revolutionize science. Her research has given her an insightful understanding of the political intrigues, religious conflicts, and cultural hypocrisies that defined post-Reformation Europe. Some scholars might question her theme that without Brahe, Kepler would never have discovered the laws of planetary motion. Historians of science will be unhappy that she fails to understand some of their discoveries; for example, she does not realize that Galileo, the Italian Copernican, did not have a correct understanding of inertia (his inertia was circular, not rectilinear). On the whole, though, her book is meticulously researched and clearly written.

After a prologue in which Ferguson describes how the two eccentrics, the fifty-three-year-old Brahe and the twenty-eight-year-old Kepler, first met, her approach is basically chronological. This allows her to make some instructive juxtapositions of these two lives, even when the men were living in different countries. For example, Brahe’s background was aristocratic and privileged, whereas Kepler’s was plebeian and provincial. While the religious background of both men was Lutheran, each became unorthodox in his own way.

Ferguson admits that her account of Brahe’s life depends heavily on Thoren’s biography, but, unlike other authors, she strives to bring out the kindness as well as the cantankerousness of this famous eccentric. He was born in a Danish castle along with a twin brother who did not survive. He was raised not by his parents but by an aunt and...

(The entire section is 2053 words.)