Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Heavenly Intrigue by Joshua Gilder and Anne-Lee Gilder

5 Stars

Buy on IndieBound
This book was FASCINATING! Absolutely fascinating.

Modern science has shown that Tycho Brahe was murdered and the most likely suspect is Johannes Kepler. Between the two of them, these men are the fathers of modern astronomy.

By all accounts, Kepler was a class A jerk. Holy cow. What a piece of work. The language he used (there are quotes from surviving letters throughout the book) is that of a man with some serious delusions of grandeur. At the very least.

Brahe, on the other hand, was open, friendly, generous and forgiving-- both of those to a fault. Kind of ironic given the scar on his face from deuling with his cousin. (He had a prostethic nose made of a gold and silver alloy for special ocassions and a copper one for everyday use. Not kidding.)

Both had rough lives. Kepler started out with nothing and was never happy. Brahe started out with everything and gave it up for love and astronomy.

Brahe's life was also laced with a certain irony-- he was accused, hounded, and eventually exiled from Denmark on two main charges. One- he was "living in sin" with his "mistress". Since he was a nobleman and his wife was a commoner, the church would not recognize their marriage. It was a "common law" marriage which was then outlawed with the ascension of Christian IV to the throne. The irony? His estate was seized and given to Christian's mistress. Apparently it's okay to have one as long as you don't live with her?

Two- he allowed the priest to forgo the exorcism before his son's baptism. (The priest making that accusation omitted the exorcism himself when he baptized the king's son a few years later.)

Brahe was also an interesting person in his lack of interest or belief in astrology. In an age where astrology and astronomy were nearly inseparable, he said "Because of this, man, if he wishes to live as a true, supermundane person, can overcome any malevolent inclinations whatsoever from the stars."

Kepler, on the other hand, writes his horoscopes yearly and is constantly blaming the planets for his bad temper and violent mood swings.

Like when he gave Brahe two doses of mercury, most likely from Brahe's own lab. When the first didn't kill him, Brahe was given a stronger dose that killed him in about 13 hours. Kepler then made off with Brahe's forty years of observations and empirical evidence, which was supposed to go to Brahe's heirs.

It's a twisted affair, but if Kepler hadn't been such a nasty person, would he have discovered his three laws? Would he have been able to lay the groundwork that allowed Newton to develop the science of physics? History would certainly be vastly different.

Anyway, fabulous book, though if you're not interested in astronomy, it's probably not for you. Personally, I loved it!

*Sorry about the late post (and no post yesterday). Comcast ate my internet!*


  1. Wow, that sounds really interesting! I haven't read a good intriguing astronomy book in a while.

  2. BTW, have you read The Book Nobody Read about Copernicus' De Revolutionibus? I thought it was pretty interesting.

  3. I haven't, but it sounds like I need to!