Heavenly Intrigue

By Joshua Gilder and Anne-Lee Gilder

Heavenly Intrigue is a true crime story about a murder that took place 400 years ago.

At least that is the allegation made by the authors. They point to a healthy, “strong as an ox”, 54-year-old Dane who suddenly took sick after a banquet in 1601 and died ten days later. Modern forensic analysis of mercury levels in his hair suggests that he was poisoned.

What makes the story remarkable is that the Dane in question was the most famous astronomer in Europe at the time, Tycho Brahe. And that the villain of the piece, the suspect with the “motive, means, and opportunity”, was Johannes Kepler, Brahe’s unhappy apprentice and subsequent author of the famous three laws of planetary motion.

Brahe was at the cutting edge of a scientific revolution, sweeping away the eternal principles of classical “natural philosophy” and laying the groundwork for the modern scientific method. No one before Brahe had taken the process of systematic data collection and its synthesis to such an exacting level. Astronomy was scarcely differentiated from astrology (or alchemy, for that matter), and many curious theories were moving in and out of fashion. What Brahe understood was that a valid model of the universe had to be based on a solid foundation of close observation.

To this end he became something of a pioneer in the invention of new tools for making cosmic observations, and by the time he became Imperial Mathematician at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor he had amassed an invaluable amount of material. It was these thirty-four volumes of observations which Kepler needed to flesh out his theories. In the eyes of Joshua and Anne-Lee Gilder, it was his motive for murder.

The history of science is less a chronicle of facts and theories than it is a personal drama. Heavenly Intrigue emphasizes the human factor, and manages to capture both the highs and lows of what made Hamlet, at around the same time as the events recounted here, exclaim “What a piece of work is a man”!

“In apprehension how like a god!” Before Brahe’s calculations, a theory of the cosmos was supposed to be beautiful. Kepler’s early models of the universe had spheres and Platonic solids nested within each other. Unconvincing from a modern perspective, but for Kepler “reasoning from such aesthetic principles was not only a legitimate but a superior way to understand the deeper nature of reality. As the ultimate nature of God’s universe was mathematical . . . aesthetic concepts such as beauty, symmetry, and proportion were clues to the Creator’s math, for it would not be possible, Kepler remarks, quoting Plato, for the perfect architect to create anything other than that which is the most beautiful.”

This human affinity for order, symmetry and beauty is still a part of the scientific imagination, or intuition, today. The difference is that today’s scientists employ ideas of beauty and symmetry as more of a guide, “even an inspiration, but then test their theories against further, repeatable experiment.”

From Kepler’s godlike apprehension of the beauty of the universe the story swiftly comes down to earth. Brahe had done the research, mined the treasure of the cosmos, and stored it all in his volumes of observation. Kepler – an introspective, miserable paranoid, by his own account – was driven by a very intense, very un-godlike ambition to unlock the secrets of the universe and become the big man in astronomy. In order to get those observations he first had to get rid of Brahe. Which, according to the Gilders, is what he proceeded to do.

And they might be right. “It is,” they admit, “impossible, four hundred years after the fact, to achieve absolute certainty as to who Brahe’s murderer was.” Indeed, it might not have been murder at all. But the forensic evidence (gathered from a chemical analysis of Brahe’s hair done by bombing it with proton beams), combined with a close reading of contemporary accounts of Brahe’s death, do add up to a strong circumstantial case.

And an enlightening little book on matters both human and divine.

Review first published October 9, 2004.