A misleading book title that creates the wrong impression

A new biography of Johannes Kepler has just appeared and although I haven’t even seen it yet, let alone read it, it brings out the HistSci Hulk side of my personality. What really annoys me on David Love’s book, Kepler and the Universe[1], is the title or rather the subtitle, How One Man Revolutionised Astronomy. Now, I for one have for many years conducted a private campaign to persuade people not to claim that we live in a Copernican Cosmos, a standard cliché, but that we live in a Keplerian Cosmos, because it was the very different elliptical system of Kepler that helped heliocentricity to its breakthrough and not the system of Copernicus. However Love’s subtitle immediately evokes the spectre of the lone genius and for all his undoubted brilliance Kepler was not a lone genius and especially not in terms of his cosmology/astronomy.

A 1610 portrait of Johannes Kepler by an unknown artist Source: Wikipedia Commons

A 1610 portrait of Johannes Kepler by an unknown artist
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Even a cursory examination of Kepler’s road to his system will immediately reveal his intellectual debts and his co-conspirators, both willing and unwilling. First off is naturally Copernicus himself. Kepler did not conceive a heliocentric system from scratch but was, on his own admission a glowing admirer or even acolyte of the Ermländer scholar. This admiration is one of the principle reasons that we don’t truly acknowledge Kepler’s achievement but tend to dismiss it as having just dotted the ‘Is’ and crossed the ‘Ts’ in Copernicus’ system, a demonstrably false judgement. Kepler, of course, didn’t help the situation when he titled the most simple and readable version of his system, and the one that together with the Rudolphine Tables had the most influence, the Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae. Not a smart move! Whatever, we are already at two men who revolutionised astronomy.

Nicolaus Copernicus 1580 portrait (artist unknown) in the Old Town City Hall, Toruń Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nicolaus Copernicus 1580 portrait (artist unknown) in the Old Town City Hall, Toruń
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kepler did not discover Copernicus himself but was introduced to him by his teacher Michael Maestlin at the University of Tübingen. Usually Maestlin gets mentioned in passing as Kepler’s teacher and then forgotten but he played a very important role in Kepler’s early development. In reality Maestlin was himself one of the leading European astronomers and mathematicians in the latter part of the sixteenth century, as well as being by all accounts an excellent teacher. He was also one of the very few supporters of both Copernican astronomy and cosmology. This meant that he gave Kepler probably the best foundation in the mathematical sciences that he could have found anywhere at the time, as well as awakening his interest in Copernican thought. It was also Maestlin who decided Kepler would be better off becoming a teacher of mathematics and district mathematician rather than training for the priesthood; a decision that Kepler only accepted very, very reluctantly. Even after he had left Tübingen Maestlin continued to support the young Kepler, although he would withdraw from him in later years. Maestlin edited, corrected and polished Kepler’s, so important, first publication, the Mysterium Cosmographicum. In fact Maestlin’s contributions to the finished book were so great he might even be considered a co-author. Some people think that in later life Kepler abandoned the, for us, rather bizarre Renaissance hypothesis of the Cosmographicum, but he remained true to his initial flash of inspiration till the very end, regarding all of his later work as just refinements of that first big idea. Maestlin’s contribution to the Keplerian system was very substantial. And then there were three.

Michael Maestlin Source: Wikimedia Commons

Michael Maestlin
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tycho! Without Tycho Brahe there would be no Keplerian System. Tycho and Kepler are the Siamese twins of elliptical astronomy joined at the astronomical data. Without Tycho’s data Kepler could never have built his system. This duality is recognised in many history of astronomy texts with the two, so different, giants of Renaissance astronomy being handled together. The popular history of science writer, Kitty Ferguson even wrote a dual biography, Tycho and Kepler, The Unlikely Partnership that Forever Changed our Understanding of the Heavens[2], a title that of course contradicts Love’s One Man. Her original title was The Nobleman and His Housedog, with the rest as a subtitle, but it seems to have been dropped in later editions of the book. The ‘housedog’ is a reference to Kepler characterising himself as such in the horoscope he wrote when he was twenty-five years old.

Portrait of Tycho Brahe (1596) Skokloster Castle Source: Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Tycho Brahe (1596) Skokloster Castle
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tycho invited Kepler to come and work with him in Prague when the Counter Reformation made him jobless and homeless. Tycho welcomed him back when Kepler went off in a huff at their first meeting. It was Tycho who assigned him the task of calculating the orbit of Mars that would lead him to discover his first two laws of planetary motion. It has been said that Tycho’s data had just the right level of accuracy to enable Kepler to determine his elliptical orbits. Any less accurate and the slight eccentricities would not have been discernable. Any more accurate and the irregularities in the orbits, thus made visible, would have made the discovery of the elliptical form almost impossible. It has also been said that of all the planets for which Tycho had observation data Mars was the one with the most easily discernable elliptical orbit. Serendipity seems to have also played a role in the discovery of Kepler’s system. The high quality of Tycho’s data also led Kepler to reject an earlier non-elliptical solution for the orbit of Mars, which another astronomer would probably have accepted, with the argument that it was not mathematically accurate enough to do honour to Tycho’s so carefully acquired observational data.

Tycho was anything but a one-man show and his observatory on the island of Hven has quite correctly been described as a research institute. A substantial number of astronomer, mathematicians and instrument maker came and went both on Hven and later in Prague over the almost thirty years that Tycho took to accumulate his data. The number of people who deserve a share in the cake that was Kepler’s system now reaches a point where it become silly to count them individually.

Our list even includes royalty. Rudolph II, Holly Roman Emperor, was the man, who, at Tycho’s request, gave Kepler a position at court, even if he was more than somewhat lax at paying his salary, official to calculate the Rudolphine Tables, a task that would plague Kepler for almost thirty years but would in the end lead to the acceptance of his system by other astronomers. Rudolph also appointed Kepler as Tycho’s successor, as Imperial Mathematicus, after the latter’s untimely death, thus giving him the chance to continue his analysis of Tycho’s data. Rudolph could just as easily have sacked him and sent him on his way. Tycho’s heirs did not assist Kepler in his struggle to maintain access to that all important data, which belonged to them and not the Emperor, causing him much heartache before they finally allowed him to use Tycho’s inheritance. After he had usurped his brother, Rudolph, in 1612, Matthias allowed Kepler to keep his official position and title as Imperial Mathematicus, although sending him away from court, a fact that certainly assisted Kepler in his work. Being Imperial Mathematicus gave him social status and clout.

Rudolph II portrait by Joseph Heinz the Elder Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rudolph II portrait by Joseph Heinz the Elder
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kepler described his long and weary struggles with the orbit of Mars as a battle, but he did not fight this battle alone. In a long and fascinating correspondence with the astronomer, David Fabricius, Kepler tried out his ideas and results with a convinced supporter of Tycho’s system. Kepler would present his ideas and David Fabricius subjected them to high level and very knowledgeable criticism. Through this procedure Kepler honed, refined and polished his theories to perfection before he submitted them to public gaze in his Astronomia Nova, Knowing that they would now withstand high-level professional criticism. David Fabricius, who never met Kepler, nevertheless took a highly active role in the shaping of the Keplerian system[3].

Monument for David and Johann Fabricius in the Graveyard of Osteel

Monument for David and Johann Fabricius in the Graveyard of Osteel

Even after Kepler’s death the active participation of others in shaping his astronomical system did not cease. Jeremiah Horrocks corrected and extended the calculations of the Rudolphine Tables, enabling him to predict and observe a transit of Venus, an important stepping-stone in the acceptance of the elliptical astronomy. Horrocks also determined that the moon’s orbit was a Keplerian ellipse, something that Kepler had not done.


Stained glass roundel memorial in Much Hoole Church to Jeremiah Horrocks making the first observation and recording of a transit of Venus in 1639. The Latin reads "Ecce gratissimum spectaculum et tot votorum materiem": "oh, most grateful spectacle, the realization of so many ardent desires". It is taken from Horrocks's report of the transit

Stained glass roundel memorial in Much Hoole Church to Jeremiah Horrocks making the first observation and recording of a transit of Venus in 1639. The Latin reads “Ecce gratissimum spectaculum et tot votorum materiem”: “oh, most grateful spectacle, the realization of so many ardent desires”. It is taken from Horrocks’s report of the transit

Cassini, together with Riccioli and Grimaldi, using a heliometer determined that either the orbit of the sun around the earth or the earth around the sun, the method can’t determine which is true, is an ellipse another important empirical stepping-stone on the road to final acceptance for the system.

Giovanni Cassini Source: Wikimedia Commons

Giovanni Cassini
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nicholas Mercator produced a new mathematical derivation of Kepler’s second law around 1670. Kepler’s own derivation was, as he himself admitted, more than a little suspect, viewed mathematically. The first and third laws had been accepted by the astronomical community fairly easily but the second law was a major bone of contention. Mercator’s new derivation basically laid the dispute to rest.

Cassini in his new role as director of the Paris observatory showed empirically that the satellite systems of both Jupiter and Saturn also obeyed Kepler’s third law extending it effectively to all orbitary systems and not just the planets of the solar system.

Lastly Newton derived Kepler’s first and second laws from his axiomatic system of dynamics giving them the true status of laws of physics. This led Newton to claim that the third law was Kepler’s but the first two were his because he, as opposed to Kepler, had really proved them

As we can see the list of people involved in revolutionising astronomy in the seventeenth century in that they replaced all the geocentric systems with a Keplerian elliptical system is by no means restricted to ‘one man’ as claimed in the subtitle to David Love’s book but is quite extensive and very diverse. There are no lone geniuses; science is a collective, collaborative enterprise.





[1] David Love, Kepler and the Universe: How One Man Revolutionized Astronomy, Prometheus Books, 2015

[2] Kitty Ferguson, Tycho and Kepler, The Unlikely Partnership that Forever Changed our Understanding of the Heavens, Walker Books, 2002

[3] For a wonderful description of this correspondence and how it contributed to the genesis of Astronmia Nova see James Voelkel’s excellent, The Composition of Kepler’s Astronomia nova, Princeton University Press, 2001


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science, Uncategorized

38 responses to “A misleading book title that creates the wrong impression

  1. The whole concept of “lone genius” is totally beside the point. The real issue is Kepler’s methodology of hypothesis was polemically opposed to algebra and built around constructive geometry. That is, there must be a larger reason for the creation of planetary orbits rather than just random unknown occurrences. Kepler’s method was based upon Socratic dialogue of hypothesis. In this regard Kepler was thoroughly indebted to the intellectual movement of Nicholas of Cusa, the heir of Augustine and Plato.

  2. Mike Jacovides

    Discovering the phases of Venus used to mean something, man.

  3. A few more references, for those interested in pursuing this further:

    [a] Voelkel has written an excellent brief Kepler biography (145 pages), Johannes Kepler and the New Astronomy, Oxford Portraits in Science. (While New Astronomy was the main title of Kepler’s famous book where he first announced his first and second laws, Voelkel’s bio covers all of Kepler’s life.)

    [b] Voelkel acknowledges a debt, in the preface to [3], to Bruce Stephanson’s Kepler’s Physical Astronomy, Princeton University Press. Stephanson’s and Voelkel’s books highlight different aspects of Kepler’s Astronomia Nova; neither supercedes the other.

    [c] For a superb account of Cassini’s work, see Heilbron’s The Sun in the Church: Cathedral’s as Solar Observatories. (The main issue wasn’t actually the ellipticity of the orbit, but some more technical.)

    [d] Finally, about the slow acceptance of Kepler’s second law, see Victor Thoren’s article “Kepler’s Second Law in England”, BJHS 7(3) (Nov.1974) p.243-258 and J.L. Russell, “Kepler’s laws of planetary motion: I609-I666”, BJHS 2(1) (June 1964) p1-24. One of the main obstacles was simply the difficulty of calculations using it; some proposed alternate laws made the computations much easier, although they proved to be insufficiently accurate.

  4. I take your point, but I also have sympathy with the author. A title/subtitle is a sales vehicle. If he came up with the title: ‘KEPLER AND THE UNIVERSE: how one man was part of a list of people involved in revolutionising astronomy in the seventeenth century in a collective, collaborative enterprise’ I somehow don’t think it would get past the publisher’s acquisitions committee.

    • I’m fairly certain the subtitle was dreamt up by a ‘marketing expert’ at the publisher’s, rather than the author, with exactly the purpose you name, a sales vehicle. Maybe my rant could be considered a general plea against such misleading, over the top, sensationalist shitty book titles.

      • The trouble is what you do instead. Seriously, I don’t think I’d want to read the book with the honest subtitle. Perhaps we just shouldn’t write books about people like Kepler.

      • I see Brian has already made the point I was about to make. A related pet gripe of mine is how Guardian (in particular) sub-editors often, deliberately or otherwise, totally misrepresent an article in their standfirsts, presumably to make them sound more interesting.

      • So true, Richard – New Scientist are just as bad. Nearly every dramatic cover claim turns out to be ‘this might possibly be true if a theory that most people don’t accept proves correct’.

      • @Brian Clegg I think the hypothesis that only books with dishonest sensationalist titles sell is highly contentious.

      • ” I think the hypothesis that only books with dishonest sensationalist titles sell is highly contentious.”

        Thony, we should write a book on this. I suggest the title: “Only Shit Sells!”

    • You write: Seriously, I don’t think I’d want to read the book with the honest subtitle.

      Really? For example, would you want to read this book: Möbius and his Band: Mathematics and Astronomy in Nineteenth-Century Germany ? Or The Maxwellians, which doesn’t have a subtitle, but whose title clearly indicates a group enterprise.

      By the way, perhaps as an author you can share some of your title experience, vis-a-vis author vs. publisher.

      • What generally happens is that the publisher expects a strong title, but may well still change it down the line. By strong, I mean it has to be catchy and intriguing, which clearly my ‘honest title’ wasn’t. No, I don’t think I would bother with The Maxwellians, to be honest (but then I’d probably think it was a soap opera). It is important that either the title or the subtitle makes it clear what the topic of the book is and there have been plenty of people called Maxwell in history. The Möbius one’s a bit different as it’s clever enough to catch the attention.

  5. I was a subscriber to New Scientist for about 20 years. I became increasingly annoyed by the hype and eventually cancelled my subscription. This was the final straw: http://friendsofdarwin.com/20110623/

  6. @thonyc – I was exaggerating to make a point. A title doesn’t have to be dishonest, but it still has to sell, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. So I want sensational (not sensationalist) honest titles.

  7. The trend away from the “great men” narrative and towards “science is social and collaborative” dates back decades in science historiography. Clearly we have a fuller picture nowadays, as a result of this trend. I’d like to raise a related but maybe more nuanced point.

    We can agree that Everest is not the only mountain in the Himalayas. The cast of characters for astronomy does not consist only of the five traditional names: Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Tycho, Newton. But perhaps (leaving aside Galileo, a topic already beaten to death here many times over) these are the highest peaks?

  8. By the way, are there misleading book titles that create the right impression?

  9. laura

    I am just excited there is a new biography of Kepler — I hope it is good and not another dubious/popular one. There is just so much material on the man available now. Marketing has something to do with it, I think often the misleading titles come from authors who fall in love with their subjects. I tend to overlook them as authors’ indulgences.

    Regardless, I highly recommend another new book on Kepler: The Astronomer and the Witch by Ulinka Rublack at Cambridge, which is very much in the Anthony Grafton/Nick Jardine mold of socio-intellectual history. I had a few beefs with some of the interpretations and the way they are woven in among facts from the historical record so you can’t always tell the difference unless you read very closely; but overall it’s a fascinating read about early modern culture, society, and gender.

  10. @brianclegg, @richardcarter, if you have not already come across it, I recommend the Science and Technology section of “The Conversation” as similar in level to New Scientist, but much better written. You still get the batty commenters BTL, but the ATL articles are mostly very good.


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  12. Robert Walker

    It is always wise to read a book before pontificating on it. Ignorance breeds ignorance. A title is simply a title – often imposed by publishers to generate sales. Reading the book would reveal a study that documents Kepler’s engagement not just with one scientific community but with many that were often in conflict. Furthermore, Love documents his sources, which he has clearly taken the trouble to read, and justifies his arguments with logical reasoning and evidence. His book is a model of scholarship that we would all do well to try to emulate.

    • As my blog post is entirely about the book’s subtitle and its implications your little rant is totally and utterly irrelevant. However thank you for your positive review of Love’s book, which was already on my shopping list and which will be read with due care and attention.

    • You also appear to think that just because the publisher puts a historically highly inaccurate and misleading title on a book and not the author that a critical historian is supposed to ignore it. Interesting standpoint.

      • Well, academic reviews which spend most of their words complaining about typos and poorly proofread footnotes rather than engaging with the substance of the work reviewed are usually seen as in bad taste … and fussing too much about titles seems similar.

      • @SeanManning
        Yes, but Thony put a carefully worded non-misleading title on the post: “A misleading book title that creates the wrong impression”. Thanks to Walker’s comment we know that the subtitle was misleading not only as to the context of Kepler’s work, but also misleading as to the contents of the book.

        Anyway, it is clear instantly that this post is not a book review. Instead, the subtitle complaint merely provides the hook for an essay on the collaborative nature of science. What’s wrong with that?

        And now a question for any authors out there: if the publisher proposes a title (or subtitle) you don’t like, can you push back?

      • @ Sean Manning: So you equate a misplaced comma or two with a misleading subtitle? The first is irritating and if present to excess is a sign of bad copy editing and might be a reason to avoid the books of a particular publisher, but only if extremely bad.

        The second however is something completely different. A title or a subtitle is a bold public statement designed to attract the attention of a potential reader and to inform them, in the shortest possible form, what awaits them should they purchase the book. It is intended to have maximum impact and I personally despise sensationalist, inaccurate and misleading titles on popular science books as much as I despise sensationalist, inaccurate and misleading headlines on science articles in newspaper and magazines.

      • @Michael Weiss

        Well, this is not a review, but it is a public written response to a book which was only recently printed. And focusing that response on the subtitle feels petty, especially when he can’t show that it has lead one single person astray. For an example in my own field, the problem with Victor Davis Hanson’s writings is not that he once wrote a book called “The Western Way of War” and there is demonstrably no such thing. Its that this idea is central to his works, which have been extremely influential, and that colleagues who know better have been too polite to explain the problems with his ideas about people other than Greeks in public. (It took a specialist in the wars of Louis XIV to explain the problems clearly in writing! http://bookandsword.com/2015/08/15/some-thoughts-on-john-lynns-battle/ )

        So why not either focus on the substance of this book, or focus on another work which actually presents the great man theory of HistSci and can be shown to have lead people astray? Life is only so long and a book whose worst feature is the subtitle is better than most.

  13. @thonyc: “So you equate a misplaced comma or two with a misleading subtitle?” If I had to group a scholarly book’s title with either the contents (basically the author’s responsibility and essential) or the paper stock and copy editing (basically the publisher’s responsibility and accidental) I would reluctantly chose the later. But I am an ancient historian, and almost all the titles of ancient texts which we use today were created by later editors. And there are too many history books whose contents are wronger-than-necessary for me to spend much attention on misleading subtitles.

  14. David K Love

    As the author of the book under discussion, I should like to make a few comments. First, I can confirm that the title and subtitle were chosen by the publisher, not me. My own suggestions were rejected. But I really don’t think one should be too harsh on publishers for their choice of titles. After all, their main aim is to sell as many copies of their books as they can in a highly competitive market – if this means choosing eye-catching titles, so be it.

    Second, and notwithstanding the title, I hope that I have succeeded in putting Kepler firmly in context. The book discusses the essential roles of Copernicus, Tycho, Maestlin, Rudolph II, William Gilbert (magnetism), and Galileo. It also refers to David Fabricius, Johannes Jessenius, Thomas Harriot, Giordano Bruno and others. In the final chapter, I try to give a brief summary of astronomical advances since Kepler, and this includes the obvious role of Newton.

    Third, I do agree with most of the comments this article makes about Kepler, and I repeat most of them in the book. (I just have one very minor quibble: it was Kepler himself who showed that the four Galilean satellites of Jupiter obeyed his Third Law – see page 165 of the book and the accompanying endnote. No doubt he would also have extended his Third Law to the satellites of Saturn if they had been known about in his time.)

    Fourth, and finally, I should say that the book is intended to be a work of “popular science”. It aims to fall mid-way between (on the one hand) academic tomes about Kepler and (on the other hand) semi-fictional and other biographies. It attempts to do this by putting a greater emphasis on Kepler’s science (and on subsequent science) than popular biographies, in a way that I hope the intelligent lay person will be able to understand.

    I hope that I have managed to say at least a few original things about Kepler, and to say a few well-known things about him in an original way, but this will be up to the readers to decide.

    • Thank you for your comments. I look forward to reading your book, hopefully over the Christmas holidays, and having done so to reviewing the book, and this time not the title. Having read William Donahue’s positive comments on your book I am fairly certain I will enjoy it.

    • David K. Love, I am sorry that your book got labelled with a title which you would not have chosen. And thonyc, I will be glad to read your review when it is ready. Sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century astronomy is very far from my own research.

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