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Kepler & Galileo: Messengers from the Stars

Mercury Winter 2011 Table of Contents

by Erik Stengler


A 1610 portrait of Johannes Kepler by an unknown artist.

The 2009 International Year of Astronomy celebrated the 400th anniversary of Galileo's pioneering use of the telescope for astronomical observations. But in the same year, 1609, Johannes Kepler made another fundamental contribution to astronomy and modern science. He published his work Astronomia Nova, in which he described planetary orbits as ellipses for the first time. The departure from the circle as a perfect and natural shape in the universe was a giant leap that has been undervalued.

Following the success of the format used in previous occasions, José Montesinos, from the Fundación Canaria Orotava para la Historia de la Ciencia (Canarian Foundation "Orotava" for the History of Science), and I staged a debate on this issue and tried to bring an underrated Kepler into the picture.

José likes to be seen as an old mathematics teacher who has grown weary of what he considers the blind faith scientists put into numbers and mathematical science, and one who advocates alternative views related to philosophy and history of science. He enjoys debating with me, a younger astrophysicist, who speaks out for the success and achievements of the mathematical approach, based on the equations and geometry that have shaped modern science since the early seventeenth century.

When we get together in front of an audience we play these roles, but our show is especially believable because the roles actually correspond to our real-life attitudes! We previously held debates, with great success, on the foundations of relativity theory and on the consideration of the circle and the straight line in science history. Now we focused our lively discussions on the two great pillars of astronomy -- Galileo and Kepler.

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