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Reaching for the stars

Kepler by John Banville

Stephen Curry 13 July 2008

Chaotic orbit: Banville envisions Kepler as a personal disaster area

The man who strove to capture the heavens with his mathematical art is forced to submit to the inchoate laws of human nature

Editor's note: aims to review all published works of ‘lab lit’ fiction regardless of age. Kepler was first published by Secker & Warburg in 1981 and is still available in paperback from Picador. If you want to review a classic for us, please get in touch.

Astronomy is a science with truly universal appeal because, simply put, it sets the stage for the mystery of human existence. Who has not gazed up at the starry night sky and paused to wonder at our place in the cosmos? In John Banville’s Kepler, this moment of dizzying wonderment is refracted through the life of the eponymous German astronomer and mathematician to create an exquisite novel.

Johannes Kepler followed Copernicus, the Polish canon who shocked the 16th century world by banishing the Earth from its pivotal position and heaving the sun to the centre of the solar system (1). However, the complex Copernican scheme of circles and epicycles gnawed at Kepler; he spent his life fretting over the geometry of the orbits and eventually formulated his famous triumvirate of laws of planetary motion. These abandoned forever the pre-occupation with circles in favour of elliptical orbits and, crucially, opened the way for Newton to usher in a modern, mechanistic explanation for the movement of the heavenly bodies (2).

Baldly stated, Kepler’s laws are numbingly arcane: one, planets move in ellipses with the sun at one focus; two, the line between the sun and a planet sweeps out equal areas in equal times; three, the square of the period of the orbit is proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of the ellipse. Woeful material for an engrossing story you might think, but Banville is a considerable artist and has wrought from Kepler a beautiful and intense book, recounting in gritty detail the life of a celebrated scientist who strained to bridge the gulf between heavenly perfection and the chaos of the world.

The book opens with a jolt – literally – as Kepler, a rising mathematical star, is delivered in a juddering coach to a Bohemian castle to take up the post of assistant to the great Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe. The story thereafter is assembled from broken shards; time shifts back and forth in fragmented episodes from which the reader fashions the narrative arc. In a way the process mirrors the astronomer’s task: synthesising meaning from a sparse set of observations. But the reader need have no fear that the undertaking will be arduous or dull because the text is truly delightful. Banville works the material with great assurance: adhering impressively closely to the known facts of Kepler’s life, the author’s stylish prose offers plenty to savour. He has a gift for an evocative phrase, wielding words to create a canvas that teems with 17th century life. The Kepler that emerges is a fleshy, flawed, all-too-human character. Here is no scientific automaton, sifting the data and calmly extracting nuggets of understanding. Though clearly a mathematician of the first rank, Kepler is also boastful, cantankerous, petty, drunken and distracted. Unlike the planets whose graceful orbits he shapes into order by the force of his intellect, Kepler is forever colliding with those around him and the results are rarely auspicious.

The core of the book traces Kepler’s search for a geometric understanding of the solar system. Plainly a man of his time, his complex motivations nevertheless reflect an emerging modern outlook. His scientific approach is powerfully informed by his religious beliefs: for Kepler astronomy provides a chance to contemplate the divine architecture of the heavens. This is not some dogmatic search, aimed to justify a biblical text, but rather a candid expression of his sense of wonder at the universe around him–a fully human reaction that we can recognise today. Preceding his work with Brahe, Kepler conjures a geometric model of the solar system in which the distances between the six known planets are determined by fitting them to a concentric series of the five Platonic solids: octahedron, icosahedron, dodecahedron, tetrahedron and cube. He delights in the geometric harmony thus achieved, sensing it as an aspect of divine perfection.

This imaginative model is not something that would today be recognised as a properly scientific achievement; it is as if Kepler were searching for beauty rather than understanding. Kepler eventually comes to realise this as his determined and rigorous intellect grapples with Brahe’s more accurate observations of the planetary orbits. Kepler's joy in scholarship, the consolations of scientific enquiry – often a refuge from the world – are movingly described as he spends years wrestling with Brahe’s data. Bit by bit he begins to glimpse a truer picture of planetary motion and eventually sweeps away his precious model, sending it crashing to the floor. In Banville’s telling, this epiphany is a moment of fantastic exhilaration; Kepler sees himself standing on the precipice of the unknown, ready to jump.

But as Kepler strains to hear the music of the heavenly spheres, the cacophonous din of daily life is always crashing in. The man who strove to capture the heavens with his mathematical art is forced time and again to submit to the inchoate laws of human nature. In this realm he hardly distinguishes himself. Kepler bickers with Tycho, envies his wealth, distrusts his scientific motives and, in the end, has to trick him into releasing his Martian observations. Nor does he ever seem able to master the courtly orbits around the Emperor in search of funding for his astronomical work. This is a cause of much squabbling with his first wife, Barbara, who emits a constant stream of disappointment at Kepler’s failure to extract a salary that measures up to his status at court. Even after he has been elevated to the position of Imperial mathematician, following the death of Brahe, an ill-judged visit to his mother and brother simply re-ignites old animosities: the proud courtly scientist suffers miserably, chastised as if he were a naughty child. It is all so dreadfully shabby.

And yet, there are tender moments when he is caught by his own feelings, shamed by his rancour towards Barbara or suddenly glimpsing the innocent pleasures that his children take from the world. One such instance stirs in Kepler the recollection of his own childhood wonder at watching a slug crawl up the outside of a window-pane, an event that ignited his scientific curiosity. The rhythmic motion of the slug astonishes the young Kepler in a moment of discovery that many scientists can surely relate to: “The economy, the heedless beauty of it, baffled him.”

But the note of discord is ever audible in this richly woven novel. Kepler may find solace from the bedlam world in his scholarly absorptions but he remains a restless, dissatisfied soul. Humming in the background is the feeling that retreat into the abstractions of science may be a mistake. There is a telling encounter late one night when Kepler is disturbed in his study by Brahe, a sick old man by this stage. Undone by his illness and beginning to sense that Kepler may be a threat to his own astronomical theories, a heavy shroud of disappointment hangs about the Dane. He clings to his painstakingly acquired mass of planetary observations as his best hope for immortality, but in the uncertainty of darkness, it seems a poor return for a long life.

Kepler senses this too. His admiration for the outrageous Italian rake, Felix (who caused the death of Tycho’s favourite elk by getting it drunk), speaks of a longing for an extravagant and careless joie de vivre that Kepler dare not seize for himself. The desperate search for meaning and value swirls through the book. Ultimately Kepler – older and wiser but still chasing satisfaction from the Emperor – finds himself, momentarily at least, smiling at the “mild foolishness of everything”. One could do worse than to emulate him.

  1. John Banville has also written a fine novel about Copernicus, Doctor Copernicus, first published by Secker & Warburg in 1976. Kepler followed in 1981.
  2. For a factual but no less gripping account of the history of astronomy, try Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe, first published by Hutchinson in 1959.

Related information

Kepler is available on Amazon.