Starry Messengers

2011 Jeff Lynch ... For Karen who suggested it

Mark Twain said that you should first assemble all of the facts, and then you can do what you please with them.

The ancients knew far more about the accurate mechanics of the universe than did any man in the sixteenth century. I want to tell you a tale of some of the starry messengers of the seventeenth century, whose intellects and sense of enquiry helped us to understand the universe we live in. Firstly they had to unravel all the things that were untrue. Then they had to gather the proof for the things that were true. They also pointed the way to our understanding of both the inner and the outer limits of space. If one day we find it necessary to leave our earth again, and this is surely just a short matter of time, it will be in part due to these men who refused to take the easier roads in science. They bravely dared where no other minds would go! Alas I have no mathematics, and my understanding of their conquests is necessarily limited. I do hope though, that even some mathematicians and scientists may read my simple tale. If they will excuse my small understanding, then perhaps they too may come to enjoy the tale, without being overly critical of certain facts and theories that I have no hope of understanding. I make no apologies all, for concentrating my small piece on Johannes Kepler, although I  know that I have avoided the many complications of astrology, necromancy, and the left over medieval rubbish of the mind, that Kepler was all to prone to practice.

1620 October 20……An Ambassadorial Detour
Johannes cursed as the quill dug into the parchment and splattered ink all around. He had to dash this letter off in a mad rush, to reply to Wotton’s unexpected hand note. Wotton’s man had handed him a note just thirty minutes ago saying that his master Sir Henry Wotton, who had travelled from England exclusively to see Johannes, was only some thirty five miles from Linz at the Boar’s Head Inn. The note asked diplomatically if he would kindly receive him the day after tomorrow, and was there room for Wotton and his three retainers to stay at his private residence during their visit. God’s breath thought Kepler, to call this dump he lived in, his private residence, was some sort of a joke brother. Some wonderful idea of a joke.

His courteously worded answer was that he was certainly most eagerly looking forward to Sir Henry Wotton’s visit. Alas he added, his own humble residence was not what he would describe as up to scratch for such an august visitor from England. It’s a dump and no mistake he mused privately. Not that he had not fared worse off in his life. His childhood in Swabia1 had been a lice ridden and a rather scabrous affair all told. It was a familiar enough tale, with too many children and too little money, resulting in life in a cottage with a father who was an untrustworthy, unscrupulous and a particularly quarrelsome man. His father in Kepler’s own words, ‘came to no good.’. His mother he also describes, as a highly religious woman and also a vicious, quarrelsome gossip, who specialized in hands on healing with potions and herbs, which finally led to a real, if unsubstantiated charge of  witchcraft in court.

His pen was attempting to be a little more diplomatic to a diplomat just now. Therefore, he wrote down carefully on the parchment, with his honours’ excellent permission, he would order rooms for him at Linz’s finest hostellery where he personally knew the landlord. Furthermore, he was from similar personal acquaintance, sure that the wines, the beds and the ladies in waiting, were of the finest standard to be found in the whole of the Holy Roman Empire. He omitted to add, that one of those particular ‘ladies’ attached to the Horseshoe Inn’, had occasionally performed personal services for Johannes after the death of Susanna. They were not exclusive personal services, that is certainly true, but still and all he found himself grateful to that particular lady in any case. Christ’s bodkin he thought, the bloody roof in this pestilent place even leaks, and the first snows of early November were almost upon us. Even if the roof and the weather were kind to us, Old Margaret would soon have their noses out of joint right enough. She really put the fear of the horned one into his four children, and she tried to boss Johannes as well when it suited her. But Johannes had seen two wives buried, and knew enough about women and their empire building to shrug off her worst attacks.

Margaret was his housekeeper and had the unenviable job of looking after him and the four brats who had been motherless now for just over two years. Susanna had died after having six children of whom only two had survived. Just to say that he regretted her passing, would be a very trite thing indeed. Even though his position had been in decline for all of the years of their marriage, they were years of deep personal joy to Johannes as far as a relationship between a man and a woman goes. He missed the sex with her, he missed the smell of her, and he missed her company and her cooking too. Ach, in two months he ruminated, I will be fourty nine years old too. Kepler was writing this reply in Latin, for the simple reason that he was unsure if  Sir Henry Wotton spoke  German. In this case Kepler was spot on, and Wotton who was a fine scholar, an ambassador for England and an excellent poet to boot who spoke Italian, and both spoke and wrote excellent Latin. What Kepler did not know, was that Henry Wotton was an intimate friend of John Donne poet and the new Dean of Westminster Abbey, and the man who had bothered to visit him last year at Linz.

He sanded the parchment, and then took it outside and across to the crude stable where Henry Wotton’s servant was resting and watering his horse. The messenger soon mounted up and he bade him God speed. In his heart, he knew that he should have copied the letter again to get rid of the inky mess, but parchment was dear and he was poor. It was a simple enough equation. He had high hopes of Sir Henry Wotton Esq. from England’s green pastures, for there had been hints and stories given to him in another letter. He thought this might be traced back to the one and only visit by the Doctore Theologo only some eleven months ago. He remembered the date so clearly. It had been on October 23, 2006 AD. To think that he might one day, find himself in London in such company as John Donne, made Johannes mind spin, and at night laying in his burning bed, he had wild dreams of riches and fame. Come the daytime, he really believed at his core, that nothing would happen about London, and as the religious wars threatened to assail the small city of Linz from all sides he simply held on. Held on with what remained of his family for dear life itself. Four children, some animals and Margaret too, if you wanted to count her. Sometimes he included the all too friendly lass from the Horseshoe Inn as well. Well she could probably double up as a housekeeper couldn’t she? She was one of the few women you could find locally, who did not actually interpret life through a corrupted version of the ancient Christian ways.

Kepler was pretty certain in his own as yet unspoken mind, that Christianity had long ago gone quite mad. Or rather the majority of those who sought to interpret it had. He was a Protestant of course, but just who’s Protestant he could not say. Yes he was a Christian also but again just what kind of Christian he was, would be hard to say. Many years ago, he had found it necessary to bail out of the town of Graz very quickly hadn’t he? The Archduke Ferdinand in Graz, had demanded that every single citizen must declare themselves a Catholic within four days, or be banished for ever after forfeiting to the said Duke all their worldly possessions. That would certainly make you a good Catholic for life if you stayed, wouldn’t it?

Dr John Donne from the fabled green lands of England, had come to the isolated and soon to be very dangerously war torn Linz, accompanied only by two servants to speak to him and him alone. Johannes Kepler, astronomer and sometime astrologer lately of Prague and Graz, was about to be a name to reckon with. Johannes had no doubts at all about what he had done. He was almost assured about the import of what he had discovered during the period of his own epiphany of brainstorming during the Easter of 1605. He reflected that fifteen years of water had now gone under the bridge of his days since that discovery. He sighed for his productive years gone by. It is true too that he  pined too, for his second wife now two years dead, and the burden of latter years of having been saddled with four motherless children and sometimes his personal loss of the beloved Susanna had been almost too much to bear. Worse even than having to defend his Mother from being accused of being a witch. For it is true that she had been put to trial for that heinous crime2 some years ago back in Germany. It had been good bye and bad riddance to his birthplace of Germany. But he had soon discovered that after his years at Prague, his Austrian days were far worse than his German ones.

The truth was, that almost the whole of Middle Europe was descending into the madness of the time that people would come to call The Thirty Years War! The horsemen of the apocalypse were riding yet again more fiercely perhaps than before, and Linz was lying almost helpless in the path of these reckless riders. England was then a lifeline for Kepler. Grand Albion was a sanctuary from persecution, pestilence and plague descending, and a meal ticket to boot. Devil’s foot, he thought almost aloud, even my job was being mooted as being abolished but two years ago. His friendly local Protestant church members would not condescend to let him have the benefits of taking Holy Communion, and he did not like the local parish priest one tiny little bit either.

He was almost convinced now that his major work was done. Only last year he had published ‘The Harmony Of The World’,3 which if there was any decent God, Kepler reckoned would assure his place in the pantheon of the first rate scientists concerned about the order of our universe. He was not wrong in this vaulting assumption either! He needed England badly, never mind the fact that he had no command of the language whatsoever. We scholars converse in the one and only universal language was the way he thought about that subject. But oh blood of the Saints, he wished he still held the position in Prague, that he had ‘inherited’ from Tinnie Tycho, after he had gone to Prague in 1600. Martyrs murders but that was twenty years past now, and he was under no illusions that the early years at Prague, had been his best ones, and that those heady days were long dead and gone. So was Tycho too, cold dead and barely a year after he had arrived in Prague to try and steal, beg, or borrow his astronomical figures. In the wash up Kepler got all of Tycho’s figures along with his job at Benatek Castle by the Iser River. It was an offer he could not refuse in any circumstance. The year before he had accepted Tycho’s invitation Johannes had written these words in a letter.
‘Let all keep silence and hark to Tycho for he has devoted thirty-five years to his observations… For Tycho alone do I wait; he shall explain to me the order and arrangements of the orbits … Then I hope I shall one day, if God keeps me alive, erect a wonderful edifice.’

Kepler knew in his own heart for certain, that he could not  make the major discoveries that were to come in 1605, without Tinnie’s numbers. This was despite the fact that Tycho’s world at Prague had been in a thorough bloody mess and no mistake. But always he did acknowledge that it was Tycho’s meticulous observations which had caused his mighty breakthrough. He was after all is said and done, quite an honorable man.
1600 February 4……..The Man With The Golden Nose
Tycho Brahe put down the quill in his hand and swiveled around in his specially made chair to view the foreign visitor he had invited to Benatek Castle. A fellow mathematician, and from what he could discover certainly a likely one as well. ‘Johannes, welcome to Prague my dear man’, he said confidently in good if slightly accented German. He was of course the grand seigneur meeting his underling who was at his beck and call. But Tycho at the moment was at least tempering his natural seigniorial manner, for he well knew, that this man was an extremely valuable one. In pale fact Johannes, was only 29 years old, while Tycho had reached the venerable age of 53. Tycho it should be remembered, had now but a little more than a year to live. There were also the differences in their worldly situations. Tycho was almost as rich as a prince, while the younger man was church mouse protestant poor. Possibly Tycho could never have understood how this tyro mathematician cum philosopher could have arisen from almost abject poverty and scholarly deprivation. Kepler was a mathematician, an astrologer and a daring philosopher as well. Tycho was an observer of the skies, astronomer and a meticulous recorder of the celestial changes, positions and movements of ‘heavenly bodies. ’Johannes was most certainly none of these things.

Johannes Kepler saw a man who in any age or era was simply a painter’s dream. A haughty bald headed and aging man, with an aristocrats dress sense and mien, is face was finally set off by a deadly handlebar moustache and a ‘tin’ nose. Tycho de Brahe’s nose had been neatly sliced off during a duel with a fellow student. The offender had of course also been a young Danish aristocrat! The replacement nose job, was actually made of silver and gold, and in a way reflected the rank, style and the privileges belonging to this striking man, as much as it did the light of the sun. Tycho was by any standards a remarkable fellow. Born as one of  twin sons, to a Danish nobleman, who happened to be the Governor of Helsingborg Castle in Copenhagen. His twin brother promptly died, and then Tycho was kidnapped by his uncle Jorgen, and was never returned to his rightful family! Regardless, or because of his very odd upbringing, at age fourteen Tycho had witnessed a partial eclipse of the sun and was very much affected by it. He seemed as it were, to be sun struck by this celestial event. He spent much of his time investigating matters celestial, beginning with the scholarly authority of Ptolemy. Until finally at age seventeen, he made his first astronomical ‘observation.’ And thus the twig was bent.

Johannes looked with some hidden surprise at his fellow star traveler. He knew that Tycho was an aristocrat and filthy rich to boot, but he wasn’t quite prepared for the rather alarming man he saw. Tycho de Brahe of Denmark occasionally displayed a small tic to the left side of his face. This was possibly the unbidden harbinger of things to come in the following year. The pale northern light of Bohemia, managed to creep into room from a window which faced roughly southwards. Sunlight sometimes bounced off Tycho’s nose of silver and gold as he moved around.

‘Thank you for inviting me sir’ he replied with a gentle, rather than a gentleman’s bow. It now seemed to establish that they would speak in German. His first impressions of the venerable Tycho had been coloured with delays and frustrations, while he had been cooling his heels in Prague for at least nine days. Johannes had left his family at Graz to travel to Prague on January 1st 1600 Anno Domino and his nerves were a little on edge at the delay of meeting Tycho. Johannes had then traveled up to Benatek Castle from Prague with two of Tycho’s assistants, and Tycho had not been on deck to greet him. He was simply busy elsewhere. The two fellows, who had accompanied Johannes to Benatek Castle, had frustrated Johannes almost to tears with their delays and procrastinations in Prague. Quite obviously they were not often let off the leash in the bright lights of Prague, for they had been savage in their enjoyment in the seamier sides of Prague’s hospitality. One of the assistants was Tycho’s son. His name was Jorgens, and he was the eldest son. It had poured almost all or most of the journey from Prague to Benatek Castle. What’s more Jorgens had a monster of a hangover during every inch of the six hour journey from the capital to the Castle. Jorgens was also to be another parcel of trouble and tears for Johannes every inch along the way by the river. He got down from his saddle to spew rather copiously and sorely several times. Johannes Kepler was not impressed.

Describing his new Uraniburg,4 Tycho had called it ‘The Venice of Bohemia’ in one of his letters during the two year long correspondence between himself and Johannes. He noted too, that carpenters and masons were everywhere. Workmen were hiving away all over the sprawling building by the Iser River. They were frantically hammering, plastering and bricklaying all over the shop. Materials too, seemed to arrive at every hour. It was mere organized chaos at Benatek!  Johannes had buttonholed the German speaking building supervisor, who had given him a rundown on most of the renovations and installments. He soon discovered from him, that many of Tycho’s valuable instruments had yet to arrive from Copenhagen. Thus tensions and frustration were most certainly rife in the fine Castle of Benatek.

Tycho’s son Jorgens lounged in a chair in a seeming state of exhaustion and there was also another person present. This was a dwarf in strange garb, who kept himself half in hiding. He fancied sitting under the table some of the time during this first meeting of the star gazers. At other times, he would disappear behind a set of curtains for a short time, only to come skipping back into the room again. Talk about shades of Velasqez and Goya! Tycho in his attitude of the grand master seemed to take not one slight bit of notice of his capers. His name Johannes was to discover was Jepp. Jepp was to be one of the many thorns in Johannes side during his stay at Benatek. It was from allusions made by the apparently companionable if slightly sinister Jepp, that Johannes discerned that Tycho’s daughter Elisabeth, was having a partly clandestine affair with a Junker called Tengnagel. He stored that away too in the mighty computer. The youthful Junker, was one of Tycho’s assistants and the liaison was literally more than a fistful of dynamite in this little bit of Elsinore in Bohemia. Tycho however, was one of the minority of the folk in the Castle who were not in on this particular secret.

The master and orchestrator of the new Uraniburg escorted Johannes into a room with a table set for a meal. The exhausted looking Jorgens excused himself citing tiredness, and the two scientists sat down to dine alone in a rather expansive room with new expensive drapes. Even Jepp the dwarf had disappeared for the time being.

‘Well Johannes, I give you Mars entirely for yourself,’ was Tycho’s opening gambit at the start of their meal. The lord of the slightly topsy turvy Benatek Castle paused while he watched Kepler digest this rather arch statement. This was accompanied by their first course arriving at the table. It was a kind of terrine or pie, made from the local fish catch, and was certainly of a style well above the category of fare that Johannes was commonly used to. ‘Yes Mars it is, if it’s alright with your good self, and I trust it will shed more light for you than it did for poor Longomontanus.’ Tycho wolfed some of the rather fine terrine as he went on to explain that Longomontanus was an assistant who had been assigned to study the orbit of Mars, and had been experiencing many difficulties. “Yes I know some of the problems of course,’ Johannes said rather guardedly. Even though Tycho had by default at least, consulted his new assistant about his first assignment, there was no doubt in the mind of the 29 year old, that Tycho de Brahe did not exactly act on general democratic principles. As it turned out, the assigning of studying this notoriously difficult planet to the young scientist was to prove stunningly successful. Although Tycho had almost instinctively concluded that he had been right to select Kepler in the first least minutes of their meeting, he would never expected the results to come. Results that he would never live to witness! The red planet of Mars came to be the very quicksilver of Johannes solving of the tricky planetary orbit problem. Likewise Kepler had drawn his own pragmatic conclusions, even though he had more caveats Than did Tycho. He more or less immediately saw that Tycho was not a well man, and therefore it seemed likely that he could never hope to fulfill the fruits of his meticulous sets of observations. Kepler was then he mused, the logical inheritor of the numbers that he so desperately needed. Conversely, these tables needed him in the same manner, and he knew full well, that he was correct on his own small celestial course. Johannes shifted his weight and rubbed his rather scarred face thoughtfully for a moment, and then steadily looked at the man he would later call Tinnie. The mathematician and astrologer at 29, was dark and wiry. His eyes were gloomy and they were very short sighted. However he was not an unprepossessing man at all. He had infinite patience if not disturbed, and was tenacious, courteous and only lost his temper when he felt severely aggrieved. Mind you this was to occur just some three months after his first meeting with Tycho de Brahe. He also had a wonderful talent for seizing the day, and later in life, he was to become a prodigious writer.

Johannes thought he could feel something moving under the dining table, but this time it was a dog and not the dwarf Jepp. He was not overly familiar with dogs though, being very poor and saddled already with three children by his first wife Barbara. He had been married to her since early 1597 for worse rather than the better he thought. He was fond of women. Too fond in fact, to be married to rather fat Barbara, Of course as you may easily realize, there was the factor of the huge gap in their intellectual levels. She would in fact, be dead in thirteen months time. Out the window to his left, he could see the rising mists of the flooding waters of the Ister River. The dark side of Johannes Kepler rose up similarly, as longed to see those tables of figures gathered with such cunning. With cunning and by methods that were beyond any other human alive, on either side of the Alps. Kepler coveted these tables above anything in this world.

The dog snuffling under the table was angling for food of course, and Johannes who had never owned a dog, steadfastly tried to ignore it whilst still courting Tycho de Brahe. If you were a poor teacher in middle Europe, you just did not willingly forgo food for a dog. Johannes calmed himself at the mention of that Greek word planet. To accumulate you must speculate, and what’s more you must sometimes simply do what you are told. If ever there was a time when he must move carefully, play it cool and buckle under, this was it! He looked directly at his hungry host and spoke in a steady, earnest voice. ‘Sir, I would only be too happy to study that strange red planet with you’, and he nodded his hearty approval at the man with the tin nose.’ Tycho de Brahe nodded sagely and sipped his red wine with satisfaction. And then the thought came to him, that Kepler was a man that he could control, no matter he possesses such a mind. And Johannes sat at the other side of the table, simply wondering when Tycho was going to demonstrate his legendary new observation instrument. This was a massive sextant, with arms five and a half feet long. These arms were joined with a great brass hinge. A large metallic arc, graduated into single minutes, told off the arc of observations which were more accurate than possessed by any other living man. Johannes Kepler was merely being patient and never in life subservient, and in this matter, Tycho had never been further from the truth in his whole born natural days.  
1620 October 23      Can a poet be a good Ambassador?

Johannes had arranged the necessary rooms and stabling for Sir Henry Wotton’s retinue at the local Horshoe Inn. While he was there, he had the chance to chat with and tease a little, his lady friend Rebecca, who could be considered one of the Inn’s associates. Or if you must, she could be called by some, a lady of  the night. His relationship with Rebecca had become important to Johannes since the death of Susanna and she had eased the pain of her death just a little. It is true that she was little better than a pub whore run by Maria Schneider together with two other women of the ancient and most honourable profession. The weather now it was late October had turned cold with sleeted rain, and the village folk were already predicting a hard winter. Johannes was surprisingly enough not especially busy writing, and for the last two days he had been busy fetching and storing wood, which with luck and frugality would see his household through the bulk of the winter to come. Last year, he had published his opus magni, the Harmonice Mundi containing his shattering Third Law. He was tired and not a little depressed. His mother, Katherine, was still under the extremely slow procedures that were taking her to a trial for witchcraft back in Germany. Of course the whole thing was a total farce, but only too serious. The whole impasse had been brought on by two impossible people. One of these was the wife of a glazier and the other naturally, was his obsessively quarrelsome and locally despised mother. In fact, his mother’s trial was to occur the following year, and Ma Kepler was to die only a couple of months after her acquittal. It was a farcical and vexing end to a troublesome lady’s life.  He was definitely happy enough to see Henry Wotton coming to Linz this day. Of course there was his hopes of his’ English dream’ in the back of his mind too. The war was gathering momentum too year by year and Linz was soon to be swallowed by it. He had dedicated his ‘Harmony Of the World’ to the James The First, and he still had some hopes of an English court position.

Sir Henry arrived in Linz in good order and Johannes’ son had been waiting at the comfortable coach house to greet him. In only six years time, this very Inn, and most of the surrounding quarters would be razed to the ground during the siege of Linz, it being one of the sideshows of the Thirty Years War. But now the English party were escorted to their snug quarters at the Horsehoe Inn, and the horses were fed and put safely in stables.  One of the horses was slightly distressed, and the ostler paid special attention to it. Johanne’s boy had been instructed by his Dad, to inform Wotton that his father would dine with him at the Inn at 6pm if this suited. Wotton rather thought it would, and then he retired to rest before his meeting with Kepler that night. The lad was careful to tell the innkeeper, who was a highly capable woman by the name of Maria Schneider, to set table for their dinner in the best private box in the house. The one by the back window was the one he meant. Kepler intended to spoil his appeared aristocrat English gentleman to the best of his limited funds at least.

Sir Henry was definitely an interesting man. A spy and a poet, besides being from time to time, an accredited ambassador for the court of James the First. Henry was an unlanded aristocrat who had made his way in the upper London circles by talent and charm. He was also a very close friend of John Donne. We have letters extant by Donne written in verse, farewelling his friend Wotton on a trip to Europe. Maybe it was this very journey to Linz which inspired Donne, for indeed I cannot say either way. Henry Wotton must have surely had some definite plan in mind for Kepler. The former ambassador to the Venetian States, travels across Europe to visit the foremost astronomer of his times in the rather obscure city of Linz in modern day OberAustria. His friend the famous poet and the most well known preacher in England had visited Kepler only the previous year in this very same town. It seems that Wotton had some definite plan or offer in mind and it’s a little hard to conclude otherwise. And yet there is a deafening silence on this matter. For the puzzling thing is that we never hear of it from Kepler at any time.

Well rested, Wotton went down to dine and found Johannes Kepler waiting for him. He saw a scarred faced man who had obviously seen many hard days in life. This was undoubtedly true of the astronomer, and nobody would confuse him for a courtly gentleman such as Sir Henry himself was.  But Wotton also perceived a proud and independent fellow who was quite impressive in his serious Mein. When they began their initial conversation he was no doubt in his judgment of Kepler as a man to be greatly reckoned with. Just who had Johannes Kepler the very poor boy from Swabia, with some talent in mathematics become?

We are forced now, by dent of his truly massive discoveries, to name Johannes Kepler a true stargazer and mathematician of the seventeenth century. He had now proved that the planets moved in elliptical orbits around the sun. This shifted Coperncus’ promising patterns from the classically formed circular orbits and sealed the doom of both the Aristotelian patterns of the solar system and the Ptolemaic one as well, in one solid blow. He had not done this alone. Tycho’s observations had been crucial and Copernicus, the Polish monk’s work, had initially started the seventeenth century pack’s scrambling over fresh territory. Certainly he had become intellectually, the leader of the European pack of stargazers of his times. Tycho is long dead, and in this very year of 1620, Copernicus’ book, amended with ‘suitable of corrections’ is once again made suitable reading for all Catholics. Galileo has made many friends among some of the cream of the Church hierarchy in Italy, but the boiling kettle of heresy is still on the back burner and waiting to take him to trial. Moreover Galileo stubbornly will not accept the proofs of Kepler’s elliptical orbits of the planets. His plan for the structure of the universe is thus ruinously damaged, but he does not, or will not confess it. Over a period of many years he refuses to meet Johannes Kepler. He is constantly obscure about his reasons for this, and one must sometimes suspect his motives.

However Kepler was still the down at heel figure that he had been for most of his life, and what is worse, he is situated in one of the cockpits of the religious madness, that is creating the Thirty Years War. He was effectively excommunicated by his church in Linz, and his teaching position is really no better paid than it was all those years ago, before he went to Prague. In just six years time, Johannes will be forced to sit out the siege of Linz. Much of the town will be destroyed and religious bigotry is rampaging with a scythe through Austria and Germany alike. Meeting Henry Wotton must have appeared to be a very sweet bet for our cash strapped stargazer. ‘So you met John last year then Johannes’ Wotton spoke quietly, openly to Kepler, and with his full attention directed at the gaunt German number cruncher. Speaking in Latin as they did throughout, they established a beachhead of conviviality. Wotton’s best form of diplomacy was a very cultured one. He might be a paid spy at times, but he had been to the right schools, and had boned up on matters important to this starry messenger. He could not be expected to handle the numbers of course. However that was not his job.  He ordered mulled wine for them both. Sir Henry was the man who said ‘An ambassador’s job is to go overseas and lie for the good of his country.’ He was not quite ready to change his spots now.

‘What is Signor Galileo up to now?’ asked the ambassador feeling his way along the ratlines of diplomacy and astronomy. Kepler put down his wine. He’s running around declaring that comets do not exist. He insists that they are illusions. And do you know why he does this?’ Kepler answered his own query by adding,’ because he does not really believe his ideas about comets himself. What’s more, I say that he knows that Tycho’s tables demonstrate that comets need to move in an elliptical or let us say a parabolic motion, and this will not sit with his beloved Copernican circular orbits.’ He wasn’t finished yet either. ‘What a man he is, like a dog chasing his own tail going round and round in circles.’ Here, Wottton laughed heartily, having got the  intended joke. ‘He has many, many friends in high places, including the great Bellarmine,5 and yet he is still likely to run into strife. He will not agree to meet me you know.’ Kepler said this as a flat statement. ‘He claims all kinds of exigencies but always he dodges me at every chance. He does not much trust in his own theories I think, what else can one conclude?’

Then the ambassador from England shifted ground somewhat. ‘John told me himself, that he had read some work or other of yours and knows that he is a great follower of the New Astronomy. You know sir, that he wrote these words?’ And he proceeded to quote by heart…
‘For of Meridians and Parallels
Man hath weave’ed out a net, and this net throwne
Over the heavens, and now they are his owne.’

‘Very pretty too and it was Tycho who threw the net best in my view. It was a net of observations carefully writ, which refuted all before’t when you got down to study it well,’ added the stargazer. And as for your friend John Donne even tho’ we did meet here as you say, I confess that I had very little knowledge of his true greatness as a poet. As you well know, I speak no English and not but one perhaps, of his youthful poems have I read!’ Here Johannes was referring to the great love poems studied then as now, and all were written perhaps before the poet was 25. ‘Since I met the man, I was able to get hold of translations of a few of his works, dissertations and pulpit preaching’s for the most and I own his mind is indeed a singular one indeed. We met well enough your friend and I, but I confess that I was sorely distracted at the time. I cannot think that your poet would have too many good words for me. ‘On the contrary Kepler, if I may call you so, he holds you in even higher esteem than the Italian professor. And he is now the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral you know. You must always remember Kepler, that you were that very person with your brilliant insights, to put Tycho’s jumble of information together sir,’ replied Wotton, polishing off his mulled wine and calling for another.
‘May I ask you boldly sir, whether there was a major stroke, or a moment when you might say that some method or idea, gave you your elliptical orbits for the planets?’ Kepler hardly blinked before giving his answer. ‘Well truly there was such a method and moment, but remember it came after almost 2000 years of trial and error by humankind. I took it that the earlier ancients were more correct in their assessments than the later ones. After Copernicus there seemed little room to doubt that Aristotelian astronomy was dead and buried and Ptolemy no better. The planets were of course the wanderers that the Greeks had named them for, but just how and where did they wander? Tycho gave me Mars for my very own, and in doing so he opened another window altogether. I believed that the Greeks were right in stating that the planets did not move at a constant pace. The main reason for confusing the computations of the planets was merely because of this very factor. They would not fit in to a steady pace pattern and this obscured our knowledge of their true patterns. I turned myself around, and asked what if I was an observer on Mars looking at Earth? I was computing the movements of our planet just as if an astronomer on Mars was doing it. This showed me that it was true that the earth did not move at a constant speed, but speeded up when it was nearer to the sun and slowed down when it was further away. Later I was to make a law about the velocity of the earth which proved to be simplicity itself. The earth’s velocity was inversely proportional to distance. So my dear Wotton I put myself on Mars and got a fine view from there!’

Wotton had listened with unashamed fascination as he was truly hooked on the tale, and so he burst out with, ‘and this is my very opportunity to carpe diem. I have a proposition for you sir, we and by we, I mean my sovereign king with agreement of every advisor that I do know, would like you to come to England and be James the First’s Astronomer Royal. There, I have said it at last, not a moment too soon after days of travel from Greenwich town to Linz. To be sure it could wait no longer.’

And thought Johannes, there it is after waiting so long for it  that waved a short roll of parchment which he had conjured from at somewhere beneath the table. Perhaps it came from a deep pocket in his expensive black pantaloons. Here are the terms and conditions sir in front of us. You may take them with you, and Sir if I can amend or adjust any of these matters to assist you to decide in the affirmative, please, please do advise me. There was a pregnant moment. Johannes seemed suddenly tired, and waved his hand. ‘No no, bargaining will not be needed dear Wotton to get me to your shores. I will study the papers, but I do willingly consent to your proposition with all my heart this day. I only add, that you will kindly note the fact, that I have my four motherless children to care for and a housekeeper as well.’ The last he tacked on hurriedly and you may perceive that he was thinking of a certain lady not too far away from their very dining table. Wotton made almost passionate assurances that Kepler’s family would be fully hosed and cared for. ‘Perhaps you would consider living in quarters at Hampton Court Palace, for the airs on the Thames along that reach of the river, are nothing but good near all year round. ‘Tis only a short boat trip to the city too, and it is allover a pretty place indeed’. Here the offer from James’s court and any conditions, were suspended for a time pending a simple signature from the stargazer.

The remainder of the meal was taken in amiable enough style, with Wotton all smiles and Johannes suddenly making his excuses at about nine thirty, adding that he would meet Sir Henry before he left to sign his papers. He had dined well, was truly tired, and also was not much of a drinking man at any time. Johannes quietly nodded to Maria Schneider as he left. Sir Henry in due course, opened his purse and his heart to some merchants from Leipzig and made merry. Maria Schneider, worldly landlady that she was, knew how to look after a few city gentlemen on a spree only too well. She soon introduced two ladies to the drinking party. She slyly leaned into Sir Henry when she passed him a drink, making sure that her breasts brushed Henry generously. She was, for all that she had passed her fourty third year, a comely woman. Very soon the happy Englishman felt that he was the ants pants with almost everybody in Germany. Rebecca was smart enough however, to make certain she was not one of the ladies present at the slightly bawdy revels. Incidentally, in case you were wondering, Sir Henry Wotton slept alone that evening!

Johannes didn’t wait to speak to Rebecca, but wended his way home, with an inn boy carrying a lantern before him. He wanted to rest for a spell, and then arise very early to do some more writing. As he walked through a foul night of bitter wind and rain, he thought about the offer. Yes, he would ask Rebecca to go to England as soon as he could. Hampton Court Palace had a good feel to it! When at home, he found his bed, and before he closed his eyes he thought of the next theme he would introduce in his current work, which was called ‘Epitome’. Then he said quite out aloud. ‘Thank you John Donne thank you.’ He rolled over onto his side and soon dismissed consciousness quickly, and closed his eyes and slept the sleep of sleepwalkers. That is to say, that he slept somewhat fitly and at times walked in the night with his finely honed mind. He got up at about four am to commence writing. He wrote almost everyday at this time of his life. That is to say, he did so until the coming of the wars.


Johannes Kepler never got to London. He remained in Linz, until the war finally rolled over him. As I mentioned above, he found himself in Linz during the siege which finally reduced the much of city to rubble. After surviving Linz he left the town in 1626, and irony upon irony, he not only did not travel to England, but actually got a job working for one of the wars most ruthless warriors. This was the famous General Wallenstein,6 who was not interested in science one jot. Well admittedly, he may have been a little interested in the science of killing come to think of it. Kepler died in 1630 in Regensburg in Germany, and his grave in a churchyard there was also buried and lost in the rubble and ruin of The Thirty Years War. I know nothing of what happened to his children at all.

Most historians agree that Kepler never managed to find the haven he was seeking in later life to work without the awful and immediate concerns of poverty, four youngish children and a bloody war. But this begs the question of why he never did get to London at all. Of course, he may have decided against it outright. He did not speak a word of English for one thing. We do not seem to have his words on the matter, although he still wrote a lot. The war certainly could have prevented him. So could have poverty. Travelling by coach was expensive and even horse travel meant many costs that Kepler may have found too hard to meet.   Also he was constantly trying to recover monies that he left around with banks and lenders all over Mittel Europe. He had vexing issues too, with publishers and matters to do with what we would now call copyright. His finances were worse than uneasy and that’s a fact. Thus we may never come know why Johannes Kepler died in Regensburg after spending his lat days wandering out of harms way in Mittel Europe, with no real home and no satisfactory employment.  It’s true that he as no grave, but he has epitaphs worthy of his lonely, brilliant mind. Scholars debate about just how much John Donne knew of ‘The New Astronomy’, and therefore of Kepler himself. I have read argument ubder the protectioated that his understanding may have been somewhat superficial and in truth I can have no better opinion of my own.
I repeat , that John Donne wrote,7
‘For Meridians, and parallels
Man hath weave’ed out a net, and this net hath throwne
Upon the Heavens, and now they are his own.’

Kepler remained a relatively poor man with very indifferent health. One reads how he has to walk on some journeys because he suffered from boils on his backside. In order to get his last book published, he assisted the printer by being a part time print setter and general dogsbody. Perhaps we should not mind too much then if his grave at Regensburg was desecrated by war, and even his remains are scattered and lost to this world. Perhaps we can think of him then, as belonging to the vast cosmos, rather than being pinned to the dust of this small and troublesome planet.       

Jeff Lynch, late September 2006

1. Swabia. Kepler was born in the town of Wien-der-stadt in Swabia in Germany.
2. heinous crime - although you would think it to be an apocryphal story, after a fall out with townspeople and in particular the wife of a glazier Katherine (Kepler’s mother) was finally put on trial for witchcraft. The glazier’s wife’s brother had some influence with the son of the local Duke and thus proceedings against Katherine were taken after a long delay. In 1620, despite Kepler’s own blasts against the would be prosecutors, his mother was arrested. After more delays, while she lay chained up in a gatehouse in Wuertenburg. She still denied all, and finally after 14 months she was released. She died shortly after this unholy ordeal!
3. The Harmony Of The World - or Harmonice Mundi. This was Kepler’s seminal work, and completed his major ‘Laws’, which by and large, are acknowledged by scientists to this day!
4. Uraniburg was Tycho’s original and famous observatory building just outside Copenhagen.

5. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine a prelate during Galileo’s strife in Rome. He was made a saint in 1930. A great lover of art, he was said to be very aesthetic. Bellarmine was a powerful figure in Rome during the early seventeenth century. He had been a participant in Bruno’s trial (Bruno was burnt to death in Rome). At first Bellarmine was a supporter of Galileo’s new fangled telescope. It would seem that Robert Bellarmine, like many other high ranking Roman Catholics, found it necessary to destroy Galileo’s reputation while essentially believing in his basic ideas. It was it seems, a purely pragmatic following of appearances. Why not make such a man a saint?
6. Wallenstein - Generalissimo for the Holy Roman Empire under Ferdinand the Second during the Thirty Years War. The irony here is, that Kepler a Protestant, had been effectively excommunicated by the parish at Linz. Now he is under the protection of the top general for the Catholic Emperor of Mittel Europe.
7. John Donne - this quotation is taken from ‘An Anatomy of the World, The First Anniversary’.

Influences and Books:
Firstly a big thanks to Karen Lynch, my older daughter, who first told me that she had heard that Johannes Kepler and John Donne had met. It was a great boon at least to my imagination. Next I must say, that I always had  the amazing book ‘The Sleepwalkers’ by Artur Koestler in the back of my mind for many  years. Mr Koestler was three times recommended for his work and ‘The Sleepwalkers’ written in 1951, deserves to be read by anybody who might seek to understand the progress and otherwise of human ‘civilization’.  Finally Jeremy an American scholar, wrote a paper entitled ‘The Meeting of John Donne and Johannes Kepler’ and proved to me that the event had occurred. It has been of infinite value to me in writing this piece. 


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