Science with a side of scandal
A new museum and conference look at the life's work of Kepler, the death of his greatest collaborator sparks intrigue
Posted: August 26, 2009
They came for the science, but they stayed for the tales of murder, sex and excess.
A scientific conference is focusing on Johannes Kepler's scientific contributions, but the sordid conspiracy theories that link Kepler to the death of his mentor and one-time research partner Tycho Brahe remain intriguing and inescapable.
The four-day "Kepler's Heritage in the Space Age" conference kicked off Aug. 24, drawing a cast of international academics from Brazil, South Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia and all-across Europe. A new Kepler Museum was launched Aug. 25 in a former home on Karlova street, where the scientist lived in the early 17th century.
The conference coincides with the 400th anniversary of the publication of Kepler's Astronomia nova - and his biggest professional contribution, the laws of planetary motion.
"Prague and Kepler are so interconnected," said Jiří Grygar, committee president of the Institute of Physics at the Czech Academy of Sciences. "Every engineer who works for NASA has to know him. Without Kepler's laws, there would be no satellites or space travel. It took hundreds of years before we got to see his laws implemented practically."
Kepler came to Prague in 1600, when the city was known for its liberated social environment ripe for free scientific inquiry during the rule of Emperor Rudolf II. He came to lend mathematical expertise to Brahe, who specialized in charting observations in the heavens. The pair worked in tandem for a prolific period of about 18 months, before Brahe's mysterious death - which came after overindulging in food and drink at a banquet. After suffering for 11 days, Brahe died when his bladder exploded. Kepler would eventually gain possession of Brahe's much coveted research and would later move on to continue work in Linz, Austria.
New theories on Brahe's death abound, and one Danish researcher is seeking to exhume his body from its crypt at Týn Church on Old Town Square. Suspicions have long pointed to a jealous Kepler who sought Brahe's observations for his own ends. Some have him murdering Brahe and then buying his scientific work from his unsuspecting widow.
The pairing was an uneasy one from the beginning, with Brahe known for his penchant for the social life and Kepler for an almost monastic commitment to science. Another major split occurred as Brahe advocated a geocentric view of the solar system, while Kepler hypothesized the solar system was centered on the sun, or heliocentric. A statue of the pair that now stands in Malá Strana hardly speaks the truth of their relationship.
"It was not so easy for them during their lives," Grygar said.
Much of the suspicion directed at Kepler is related to the high levels of mercury found in samples of Brahe's hair that were taken in 1901 but were unable to be analyzed properly until 1993.
Igor Janovský, a former chemist who is now a researcher at the National Technical Museum - which is hosting the conference - doesn't buy it. He says historical accounts of Brahe's death are not indicative of mercury poisoning.
"He was an alchemist; he would have been working with mercury all the time anyway," Janovský said. "I don't think there is enough evidence."
The latest theory of Brahe's death has him having an affair with the wife of Danish King Frederick II. The queen then gave birth to an illegitimate son, Christian IV, who would later himself become king.
"When Christian IV took over, there was trouble," goes the story, said Janovský, and then a distant cousin of Brahe's was hired to assassinate him.
A presentation by Janovský at the conference titled "Tycho Brahe's Death: Old and New Theories" delves into all these aforementioned twists and turns.
But back to science. Kepler is credited with developing his own telescope that would serve as the basis of telescopes for centuries to come.
"It was better than the one used by Galileo," said Grygar. "And he was in touch with Galileo."
Kepler's wide-ranging interests included studies of snowflakes. He was the first to observe sun spots, which he did using a camera obscura - a precursor to modern photography that used mirrors to draw images into focus.
A new Czech postage stamp with Kepler's portrait was launched Aug. 24, and the whole series of events coincides with the International Year of Astronomy as declared by the United Nations, because this is not only the 400th anniversary of Astronomia nova, but also of Galileo's first public argument for a solar system centered on the sun (to be published one year later). The Kepler conference occurs on the heels of the International Astronomical Conference that took place earlier this month in Rio de Janeiro - and the Prague conference's ability to draw world class minds despite this is a measure of its success, say organizers.
And, while the scientific credentials of conference attendees are hardly in question, the same cannot be said for the centuries-long soap opera that has been made of Brahe and Kepler's relationship.
Benjamin Cunningham can be reached at
Tags: Kepler, science, conference, Brahe, anniversary, Grygar, astronomy.