If you start with the fact that Katherine Kepler was arrested on a charge of witchcraft on this day in 1615, before you know it you are thinking about life on other planets while muttering under your breath, ‘Oh my, Tycho Brahe had a silver nose!’
Katherine was accused by Ursula Reingold – who was, btw, involved in a financial dispute with the family – of giving Ursula a potion which made her sick. So Frau Kepler was imprisoned for 14 months, threatened (in detail – it was a deliberate tactic) with torture and it took all of her son’s brain and an attorney’s wits to get her sprung.
But they did. The whole thing was a great disturbance in her son Johannes’s life – he had to postpone all his other work and barely had time to work on his Harmony of the Worlds, a further step in his study of the planets.
Johannes Kepler was on pretty shaky ground himself in 1615 – his wife had died a few years before, he had lost his royal patron, the Emperor Rudolph, and the 30 years war was heating up. In 1625 the Catholic Church in Linz sealed all his papers in a counter-reformational move. Kepler, a devout Lutheran, fled to Ulm and paid for the publication of what he considered his most important work, the Rudolphine Tables, planetary studies he had begun 20 years earlier while an assistant to Tycho Brahe.
Tycho Brahe was the Imperial Mathematician to Rudolph in 1600 when Kepler showed up in Prague. Not only was he an important astronomer, he was also wealthy – at one point he owned about one percent of all the wealth in Denmark – and that was good for the impoverished Kepler. (Brahe, btw, had lost half his nose in a duel while at university and had various silver and gold prosthetic noses made which he wore for the rest of his life.)
He died unexpectedly a year after Kepler’s arrival and so Kepler was promoted, which gave him almost 11 years of financial security. As a result, he was able to produce his most important work in astronomy and optics during that time.
There’s more – so much more – to tell about both of them, but let us close with Kepler observing the night sky in October of 1604. For weeks, a light that was brighter than any other star or planet except Venus could be seen. It was so bright it could been seen by the naked eye and for three weeks was even visible during the day. It was SN1604, the very last supernova to be seen in our galaxy, estimated at only twenty thousand light years away.
It must have scared the hell out of everybody. Kepler wrote a book about it, so SN1604 is known as Kepler’s Supernova.
Among the many gestures that have been made to honor the 17th century astronomer is calling the mission that NASA launched last year the Kepler Mission. It’s to discover Earth-like planets orbiting other stars and has so far found five previously unknown short-period planets.