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The Composition of Kepler's Astronomia Nova Hardcover – 29 Oct 2001


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Review

"Voelkel . . . offers great reading for the Johannes Kepler aficionado."--Choice

"An exceptional and important contribution to history of science studies"--Rhonda Martens, Renaissance Quarterly

From the Back Cover

"James Voelkel achieves his purpose clearly and forcefully. His scholarship is careful and sound. He has 'done his homework,' followed where his research led him, and written a fine book. Anyone who wants to get to the bottom of Kepler's processes needs to work his way through this book, making it his own."--Curtis Wilson, St. John's College

"This book is not merely a significant contribution to our understanding of Kepler; it is arguably the most important contribution since the pioneering work of C. Wilson and E. J. Aiton in the 1960s. The technical problems in studying the highest levels of early modern astronomy have until now distracted historians from looking at the reasons Kepler wrote his most important book, the Astronomia nova, as he did. Voelkel has finally done this, and it's about time somebody did."--Bruce Stephenson, Adler Planetarium, author of Kepler's Physical Astronomy (Princeton)


Inside This Book

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When Johannes Kepler entered the University of Tubingen in 1589, the Copernican revolution was far from complete. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Amazon.com: 2 reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Face-value reading correct after all 16 Mar. 2009
By Viktor Blasjo - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
The thesis is that Kepler "presented his research as seemingly aimless intentionally to depict himself as blameless for overthrowing Tycho's legacy and to shield himself against the accusation that his new physical astronomy was dangerously idiosyncratic" (p. 252). This thesis is convincingly established, but it is much weaker than one might think. Ironically, while trying to argue for the contrary, Voelkel has in fact reinforced the face-value reading of the Astronomia Nova as essentially Kepler's path of discovery (the only significant qualifications being clearly and explicitly noted by Kepler himself right there in the Astronomia Nova). In particular, it is emphatically not the case that Kepler had settled on the ellipse at an early stage and concocted his laborious path (or even part of it) for rhetorical reasons.

For example, one supposed fruit of the "contextual" reading is this: "Why are there so many demonstrations tediously repeated for both the true and the mean sun? Because Fabricius continually objected that Kepler's innovation was itself responsible for the difficulties he encountered." (p. 252). Yes, true, but we do not need any contextualisation to "reveal" this, for in fact Kepler states it unequivocally and repeatedly himself, as Voelkel notes (pp. 226, 234).

A similar case is the via buccosa, about which much fuss is made (pp. 193-200, 245). Of course, the via buccosa results from the natural way of interpreting the versed sine distance law, whereas the ellipse results from a somewhat contrived interpretation of the same law. This was indeed the path of Kepler's discovery. When writing it up for the book, Kepler initially intended to skip the via buccosa step. But naturally Fabricius then found the ellipse interpretation of the law contrived, as indeed it is. So Kepler had to leave the via buccosa in to preempt this objection. Again, this is perfectly obvious from a face-value reading of the Astronomia Nova.

Another dramatic failure for contextualisation is Kepler's battle with the Tychonics. To get access to all the data after Tycho's death, Kepler had to agree to let Tycho's former assistant and son-in-law, Tengnagel, censor his work (pp. 149-150). But even this remarkable historical fact seems to have left virtually no footprint at all on the Astronomia Nova. Voelkel tries to argue that this agreement "sheds light on" why Kepler developed his theory in a Tychonic form as well as a Copernican in the early parts of the book, since this mode of presentation "certainly did not contribute to Kepler's advocacy of Copernicus" (p. 164). But the exact opposite is true: Kepler's reinstatement of the equant in the Tychonic system provides one of his main arguments against it, for it proves that velocity is inversely proportional to distance, and hence, according to Kepler, cries out for physical astronomy. Of course the physical theory makes much more sense in the Copernican system. Kepler uses the Tychonic form precisely up to the point where he can deliver this death blow and then abandons it completely. So this mode of presentation certainly *did* contribute to Kepler's advocacy of Copernicus, in a crystal clear manner made explicit by Kepler himself. (Voelkel is perhaps aware of this, for to the above quotation he adds the qualification: "unless we suppose that Kepler might have conceived of it as a means of lulling his readers until the necessity of the Copernican view became apparent." I'm not sure what "lulling" is supposed to mean here, but from what I have just said I think it is clear that this is highly deceptive at best.)

There is, however, one interesting thing revealed by contextualisation; namely the fact that Fabricius developed a conventional epicycle model which seemed to be equivalent to Kepler's fancy physical model. Fabricius offered it to Kepler to be printed as an appendix to the Astronomia Nova, but Kepler was appalled and replied that on the contrary "I will deeply interweave and entwine Copernicus into the amended astronomy, and so also into physics, such that either each will perish at the same time or both will survive" (p. 210).
10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Voelkel has done it again! 14 Nov. 2001
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
As the world's leading authority on Kepler, James Voelkel has once again demystified the oft misunderstood astronomer. While not nearly as accessible to the layman as Johannes Kepler : And the New Astronomy (Oxford Portraits in Science), it is a brilliant analysis of Kepler's work. It is not enough to read Astronomia Nova (1609), but to truly appreciate it one must look at the story behind it. And Voelkel takes us on that journey.
A must for all Kepler-philes and anyone else interested in seventeenth century astronomy!
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