Johannes Kepler was born in Germany in 1571, in the middle
of the Scientific
Revolution. The weak and sickly child was abandoned
by his father Heinrich in early childhood. Because his family moved around
so much, it took Kepler twice as long as usual to get through elementary
school. He eventually graduated, moving on to a theological seminary
and then to the University of Tuebingen.

At the university, Kepler decided to pursue a graduate
degree in theology, but he was soon distracted from that goal.
A Protestant school in the Austrian town of Gratz offered him a
job as a professor of math and astronomy. Although Kepler believed
he had no special skills in those subjects, he took the job. Once
there, he turned his attention toward deciphering the mysteries
of the universe. Kepler was convinced that God had created a universe
with some discernable pattern or structure, and he devoted himself
to figuring out what it might be.

In 1595 Kepler decided that the planets were spaced as
they were because the planetary orbits were arranged around geometric
figures: the perfect solids. Perfect solids are three-dimensional
figures whose sides are all identical, and Kepler was convinced
that God had used these forms to build the universe. He elaborated
on this view in his first book, the *Mysterium Cosmographicum,* or
the *Cosmic Mystery.* Kepler's theory was incorrect,
but the book was the first major work in support of the Copernican
system since Copernicus's death fifty years before. The book was
also significant because Kepler was the first major astronomer
in centuries to address physical reality, rather than being content
with a mere mathematical description of the universe.

Kepler could not quite get his data to fit his theory;
he needed a source of more accurate data. He found this in Tycho
de Brahe, a wealthy Danish astronomer. Tycho was the best observational astronomer
of his age, and Kepler decided that only Tycho's observations would
do. So Kepler traveled to Prague to work in Tycho's lab. Tycho,
an arrogant, demanding, and unpleasant employer, died after only
a year. But Kepler worked for seven more years on the problem he
had started on while there: constructing the orbit of Mars.

Kepler's work on Mars led him to discover his first two
planetary laws: that the planets travel in elliptical orbits and
that they sweep out equal areas of their orbits in equal times.
He published his results in 1609 in the *Astronomia Nova*,
or the *New Astronomy,* revolutionizing astronomy
and greatly simplifying the Copernican system.

Kepler was considered one of the top astronomers in Europe–although
not because of his published work. Few of his peers recognized
the importance of his planetary laws, and few even accepted that
they were true. It was difficult for his colleagues to recognize him
as a scientist of the modern age, when his work remained mired in
the mysticism of the past.

The years just before and after the *Astronomia
Nova* were a professional triumph for Kepler – he was well
known and well respected. He spent these years researching lenses,
as well as astronomy, adding several major contributions to the
field of optics. At the same time, his personal life was taking
a turn for the worse. In quick succession, Kepler's wife and favorite
son died, and his patron went insane and abdicated the throne.
His new home, Prague, was torn apart by civil war, and his mother
was accused of being a witch.

Through it all, Kepler continued to work toward his greatest goal:
finding a way to explain the structure of the universe. He had been
forced to abandon most of his theory of the perfect solids, and needed
something new to replace it. After years of thought, he came up
with a new idea: the theory of universal harmonies. Kepler decided
that the planets were spaced around the harmonic ration of another
set of geometrical figures. Once again, he believed he had looked
directly into the mind of God. Once again, his theory was completely
wrong. Butthe pursuit of an incorrect theory led him to a stroke
of scientific genius.

In 1618, Kepler published the *Harmonice Mundi*,
or the *Harmony of the World,* in which he explained
his new harmonic theory. Kepler's third law offered a specific
mathematical relationship between the distance of a planet's orbit
from the sun and the time it took a planet to circle the sun. Kepler
thought little of this law, as did his peers, because it made little
sense to him at the time. It was only later, when Sir Isaac Newton
created the theory of universal gravitation,
that the fundamental importance of this law became clear.

Kepler continued to publish important works. In 1619,
he published *Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae,* a
summary of the Copernican system, adjusted to accommodate Kepler's
laws. The Copernican system as we now know it is basically the
one offered in the *Epitome.* Then, in 1627, Kepler
published the *Tabulae Rudolphine,* or the *Rudolphine
Tables,* a comprehensive list of astronomical observations,
predictions, and explanations, all based on Tycho's data and Kepler's
discoveries.

Kepler's final publication came a few years after his
death. Though filled with scientific explanations, it is not actually
a scientific work – instead, it is a science fiction story. *Somnium,* or *Dream,* tells
the story of a young boy's trip to the moon. Much of the story
seems to be a thinly veiled autobiography. However, the *Somnium* was
also packed with notes on the scientific ramifications of Kepler's
discoveries. The accuracy of his prediction of what a lunar journey
would be like reveals what remarkable physical intuition he had.

Kepler is perhaps the least known of the major figures
of the Scientific Revolution. His lack of fame may be due to the
fact that he is difficult to classify – he seems less modern than
the other scientists of the time, and he relies on mysticism and
religion. His scientific contributions are themselves harder to
simplify than those of Copernicus or Newton. But while he may be
less known than his peers, Kepler is no less important. Physics
and astronomy had been separated for two thousand years before
Kepler's birth. It was an incredible leap for him to put the two
together – and in doing so, he paved the way for the Newtonian
revolution that was to come.