kepler's grim family circumstances -- 5/1/19

Today's selection -- from Tycho & Kepler by Kitty Ferguson. Johannes Kepler, one of the greatest scientific minds of the last millennium, whose laws of planetary motion built on Copernicus and Brahe and led to Galileo and Newton, grew up in Germany in grim family circumstances:

"Kepler ... was devastatingly candid about his severely dysfunctional family, as well as about himself. ...

"Grandfather Sebald, head of the family, [was] ... arrogant, stub­born, sensual, and irascible, with little affection for the grandchildren who spent their early years underfoot in his house. 'His face betrays his licentious past,' wrote Kepler.

"Johannes gave an equally unsympathetic picture of his grand­mother. She was a restless woman, thin, fiery-tempered, resentful, clever, 'blazing with hatred,' 'violent, and a bearer of grudges,' and a liar. She was also devoutly religious.

"Johannes's father, Heinrich, was their fourth son, and he, by his own son's report, was a vicious, immoral, brutish, uneducated man. 'He destroyed everything. He was a wrongdoer, abrupt, and quarrel­some,' and he 'beat his wife often.' Theirs was 'a marriage fraught with strife.' Through a combination of bad behavior and bad luck, Heinrich had brought the Kepler family to an unprecedented low. Before Johannes was three, Heinrich set off adventuring and fighting as a mercenary. He returned only occasionally to his wife and chil­dren, and his short stays were not happy.

"The task of raising Johannes and his brothers and sisters -- there were seven children, four of whom survived to adulthood -- fell mainly to their mother, Katharina. ... Kepler described his mother as small, thin, dark-complexioned, garrulous, quarrel­some, not a pleasant woman. Her acquaintances regarded her as an evil-tongued shrew.

Portrait of Kepler by an unknown artist, 1610

"Young Johannes, the eldest of the children, resembled Katharina in appearance. ... When Heinrich was at home, she responded with pouting and stubbornness to his harsh, rude treatment. 'She could not,' wrote Kepler with pity, 'overcome the inhumanity of her husband.'

"Kepler also described aunts and uncles and some cousins who lived in the house in Weil der Stadt. Among them were Uncle Sedaldus, who was 'an astrologer, a Jesuit, acquired a wife, caught the French sickness, was vicious,' and Aunt Kunigund, who was poi­soned and died.

"In the spring of 1575 Katharina Kepler left three-year-old Johannes and his infant brother in the care of these relatives and went off to fol­low her soldier husband Heinrich. In her absence Johannes nearly died of smallpox, probably the illness that impaired his vision. The prodigal parents returned after a year.

"With both nature and nurture decidedly against the two Kepler brothers, their future looked bleak. Johannes was puny and weak­sighted. Heinrich, two years younger, was an epileptic. Johannes re­called that Heinrich was beaten roughly, and animals frequently bit him. He nearly drowned, nearly froze to death, nearly died of illness, and ran away from his apprenticeship to a baker when his father threatened to 'sell him.' After that he appeared only occasionally at home, much as his father did, often returning bruised and broken, robbed of everything he had, making his way back by begging. All his life -- he died at the age of forty-two -- his mother considered him the bane of her existence."



Kitty Ferguson


Tycho & Kepler: The Unlikely Partnership that Forever Changed Our Understanding of the Heavens


Walker Publishing Company, Inc.


Copyright 2002 by Kitty Ferguson


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