Johannes Kepler’s name may not be well known to the general public, but in the halls of science he is considered a genius of remarkable proportions. Both a mathematician and astronomer, Kepler’s discoveries during the dark times of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries changed our understanding of the world around us, especially his three basic laws of planetary motion, which provided proof of the Copernican system, and his often unrecognized contributions to Newton’s gravitational law, the basics of optics, and the foundation for the invention of the calculus.
But perhaps it was his spiritual quest, and his constant search for some kind of harmonious universal order, that made this amazing intellect a borderline saint. And perhaps it was his unceasing fight to do right in a world turned upside-down by religious violence and chaos that made him a human worthy of spending time with the angels.
Kepler was a man of powerful intellect, yet physical weakness, a sickly child who grew up to be a man obsessed with finding the truth. His scientific acumen led to major discoveries that placed him right next to Galileo as one of the world’s greatest astronomers, and most of us know him as a man we read about in high school science books. Yet Kepler was more than just an amazing scientist; he was a man of deep abiding faith who lived through a time in religious history when people, especially women, were tortured and burned at the stake for being “witches.” One of those women was his mother, Katharina, a victim of a hateful neighbor and a society caught up in religious hysteria.
As Kepler struggled with his mother’s torture and trial, he fought to keep his place in the changing Lutheran church, and to find work as a man of science with such luminaries as Tycho Brahe. He married several times and watched his first wife and many of his children die from simple diseases that today would have been cured with one round of antibiotics. He watched as the Holy Roman Church sent out waves of violence against heretics and even men of science, and his heart broke as the religious leaders of his time became more monsters than men. For Kepler, scientific discovery was only half of his life. The other half was finding spiritual truth, and he knew it was not present in the witch-burnings of the Catholic Church.
Not only is Kepler’s Witch a fascinating account of this man’s scientific evolvement and intellectual growth. It is a chilling chronicle of the war between religion and nature and the widening rift between the various religious factions that sought dominion during the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation and the following days of social upheaval. Kepler lived and discovered during one of the most horrifyingly dark times of human history, and he suffered greatly for his genius, and for his spirituality, which saw God and harmony in nature and the natural order of things. His life journey and his suffering parallel the changing (and deeply disturbing) times he moved in, and this parallel makes Kepler’s Witch an extraordinary book that serves as both biography, history and a scathing indictment of the dangers of religious fanaticism as seen through the eyes of a man who lost his mother to the fires of Godly violence. Reading this book made me thank the Gods, Goddesses and lucky stars that I was not alive during the times Kepler lived, times when just being a little different could get you imprisoned, brutally tortured and often burned alive before a cheering audience of fanatics and fools with little understanding of the horrors they were helping to perpetrate.
While Kepler will always be remembered for setting the foundations of planetary motion and literally handing Newton everything he needed for the law of gravity he took credit for, this book will also prove that Kepler was close to being a walking saint – a human being who deeply cared about the world around him enough to fight for what he knew was right; a man who believed in a good and loving God even as his children succumbed to disease before his eyes and his own mother was tortured; a man who knew deep in his heart that science and spirituality were on the same page, even as the Church leaders around him were in constant denial.
A truly fascinating account of a man of vision during a time of blinding darkness.