June 2005

Lara Apps

nonfiction

Kepler's Witch: An Astronomer's Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother by James A. Connor

James Connor introduces Kepler’s Witch with an anecdote about meeting a surly, anti-American German student on the train from Stuttgart to Prague and explaining to the student that Johannes Kepler is a man worth knowing. The story concludes with the two men shaking hands in Prague, having bridged their differences thanks to the great astronomer. In between, Connor explains that Kepler has been unjustly written out of the history of science (thanks, apparently, to the egomania of Isaac Newton), that he was as great as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and that “knowing Kepler will make your own life work a little better.” So much for a balanced perspective.

Oddly, Connor does not address these issues in the main text; there is no discussion of Kepler’s treatment by historians of science, nor an elucidation of the comparison with Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Granted, it may be true, as Connor says, that most Americans do not know who Kepler was, but how he makes the leap from the quality of American curricula to a supposed exclusion from the history of science is a mystery. I learned about Kepler in high school in Canada, and it is not as if historians have ignored him. As for the claim that Kepler “fought for peace and reconciliation between the Christian churches” (this is what leads Connor to compare him to Gandhi and Dr. King), only a very generous interpretation of Kepler’s work and personal tribulations as recounted in this book could lead to such a conclusion.

Connor’s life and times account of Kepler contains much that is interesting, but it is too deeply flawed to be more than an encouragement to seek out better books. The prose is repetitive and at times jarringly informal, even juvenile. The narrative is also extraordinarily repetitive -- for instance, one is told over and over again about Kepler’s relationship with the Jesuits -- and feels disorganized, as it jumps from topic to topic and year to year, often going back over ground already covered.

Kepler’s Witch is intended for a popular audience, not for academics, so while not expecting much in the way of formal referencing, one does hope in a biography for a certain degree of respect for sources and historical accuracy. Connor provides a few endnotes and a list of source reading, but nevertheless, I found myself questioning his assertions on almost every page, especially once I began to notice factual inconsistencies. For example, he states on one page that Edward Kelley, John Dee’s sorcerous partner at Prague Castle, lost his ears after having been exposed as a charlatan. Later, he writes that Kelley’s ears were cut off as punishment for falsifying official documents. He also mixes things up in his account of the witch trial of Kepler’s mother: in one place the town of Leonberg has burned six witches, in another place it is "more than six," and in yet another it is just five witches. No explanation for the numerical variation is offered.

Finally, he inserts a highly questionable account into a paragraph about tormenting witches and sorcerers. One would assume, from its placement, that the story about Catherine Hayes screaming for half an hour before her death at the stake in London in 1726 refers to a witchcraft case; but England did not burn witches (though they burned heretics), and the last English witchcraft conviction was in 1712. Hayes was actually executed for "petty treason," and Connor should have either pointed this out or found a different example. The continental witch trials could have furnished any number of gruesome and more appropriate instances, so his use of an unrelated English example is a head-scratcher.

This may seem to be merely nitpicking, but errors such as these fatally undermine a reader’s confidence. As much as I would prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt, I would not trust much of what Connor says in Kepler’s Witch. For me, and for any reader who takes history seriously, this makes the book virtually useless. It’s a shame, for a contextualized exploration of Kepler’s life and work is a fascinating subject. To give him credit, Connor highlights Kepler’s religious beliefs and his struggle for survival in the midst of omnipresent confessional conflict. His account also illuminates some of the processes of early modern natural philosophy; the relationships between Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and Galileo are particularly interesting. Another positive aspect of the book is the inclusion of a number of Kepler’s letters, translated into English. These make Kepler accessible to modern readers and provide valuable support for certain portions of the narrative. Unfortunately, Connor fails to connect the events of Kepler’s life with elements of his work, other than to suggest that he suffered depression that made work more difficult, and that sometimes he turned to his studies as a refuge from his troubles. This is not a very enlightening conclusion, and hardly lives up to the book’s title.

In the end, this is a book that ought to have been better than it is. One would think that Connor, a former Jesuit priest, holder of several degrees including a doctorate in literature and science, and a current professor of English, would understand the importance of clear prose, accuracy, and reliability. A little editorial effort could have made Kepler’s Witch a great read, perhaps even a contribution to scholarship. As it is, it’s a disappointment.

Kepler’s Witch: An Astronomer's Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother by James A. Connor
Harper San Francisco
ISBN: 0060750499
402 pages