A large number of significant but minor figures in the history of science tend to get lost in the shadows of those, whom we have raised to god like status within that history; whole hordes have been swallowed up by the shadows cast by Galileo and Newton. Lesley Murdin even wrote an excellent book, Under Newton’s Shadow, in acknowledgement of the latter. One figure who suffers from this phenomenon is the German astronomer Michael Mästlin (1550–1631), who if he gets mentioned at all, it is only with reference to his most famous student, Johannes Kepler. Although his substantial influence on Kepler is probably his most important role in the history of astronomy, Mästlin (or Maestlin, as he is usually written in English) deserves to be much better known in his own right.
Michael Mästlin portrait 1619 artist unknown
Michael Mästlin was born 30 September 1550 in Göppingen into a strict Lutheran Protestant family. He was schooled in the convent schools of Königsbronn and Herrenalb. He matriculated at the University of Tübingen in 1658 where he graduated BA in 1569. In the same year he entered the Tübingen Stift (the Lutheran Church hall of residence) with a stipend from the Duke of Württemberg. He graduated MA in in 1571 and completed his theology studies in 1573.
As a student he studied astronomy and mathematics under Philipp Apian (1531–1589) the son of the astronomer, mathematician and cartographer Peter Apian.
Philipp Apian, artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons
Philipp had already succeeded his father as professor for mathematics and astronomy in Ingolstadt at the age of twenty-one. Like many others he studied medicine alongside his teaching duties finishing his medical studies later in the Northern Italian universities. In 1569 he was forced by the Jesuits to quit his post in Ingolstadt because of his membership of the Lutheran Church. In the same year he received the professorship in Tübingen. Apian was professor in Tübingen for fourteen years until he was, ironically, forced to resign because he refused to sign the Formula of Concord a document setting out the Lutheran statement of faith and condemning Calvinists.
Apian inspired and guided Mästlin’s interest in astronomy and mathematics. Already in 1570 Mästlin acquired a copy of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus and he would go on to become one of the first university teachers to teach Copernican heliocentricity. From 1573 until he first left Tübingen in 1576 he was Repetens mathematicus (teacher for revision in the mathematical sciences) at the Stift. In 1570 he published the second edition of Erasmus Reinhold’s Prutenicae Tabulae. In 1572 he observed the Supernova, publishing his observations in his Demonstratio Astronomica Loci Stellae Novae the following year. In 1575 he represented the absent Apian as mathematics professor.
In 1576 Mästlin was appointed Diaconus (2nd pastor) in the parish of Backnang, a small town near Stuttgart. His clerical appointment didn’t stop his astronomical activities. He observed the comet of 1577 publishing his Observatio et Demostratio Cometae Aetherei, qui anno … 1577 in 1578. Much is made, in the secondary literature, of Tycho Brahe’s observations of the 1572 supernova and the 1577 comet and how the determination of the supralunar occurrence of both phenomena led to the refutation of the Aristotelian principle of an unchanging heavens. However, at the time Tycho’s were not the only observations and Mästlin’s reports had at least as much if not more influence on the debate as those of Tycho. In fact Tycho named Mästlin as his prime witness confirming his own observations.
In the years between 1578 and 1580 Mästlin constructed his own observing instruments, a quadrant and a Jacob’s staff. In 1580 he published his Ephemerides Novae … for the years 1577 to 1590. His highly visible astronomical activities led to Mästlin being appointed professor for astronomy and mathematics at the University of Heidelberg in 1580, which had become Protestant in 1556. In Heidelberg he published the first edition of his astronomy textbook, Epitome Astronominae, a standard Ptolemaic geocentric work 1582, which over the years would see six further editions.
In 1584 he was called back to Tübingen his alma mater to succeed his own teacher Philipp Apian as professor for the mathematical sciences, a post that he would hold for more than 47 years until his death in 1631.
Whilst still at Heidelberg Mästlin, as a leading Protestant mathematicus was consulted by the rulers of the German Protestant states on whether to adopt the new Gregorian calendar. In his Gründtlicher Bericht von der allgemeinen und nunmehr bei 1600 Jahren von dem ersten Kaiser Julio bis jetzt gebrauchten jarrechnung oder kalender (Rigorous report on the general and up till now for 1600 years used calculation of years or calendar from the first Caesar Julio), published in 1583, he rejected the new calendar on mathematical and astronomical grounds, noting it was not clear how it was calculated, (this information didn’t become available until much later) and also on religious grounds. In his anti-Catholic polemic he referred to the Pope as “seiner Heilosigkeyt”, that is “his Awfulness”, a pun in German on Heiligkeit meaning holiness and Heillos meaning awful. Mästlin played a central role in the rejection of the calendar reform in the Protestant states, who only adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700.
It is in his role as professor in Tübingen that is best known and in particular his relationship with his most famous student Johannes Kepler. Kepler studied in Tübingen from 1589 till 1594, like Mästlin as a stipendiary in the Tübinger Stift. From Mästlin’s lectures Kepler learnt about the heliocentric system of Copernicus and not through some sort of secret instruction as is often falsely claimed. It was almost certainly Mästlin who recommended Kepler for the post of mathematics teacher in Graz and it was definitely Mästlin who convinced Kepler to accept the post. The two stayed close after Kepler’s move to Graz and exchanged many long letters on a range of subject. In 1596 Mästlin assisted Kepler in getting his Mysterium Cosmographicum published, adding Rheticus’ Narratio Prima, as an appendix to the work thereby demonstrating his strong support for the Copernican hypothesis.
Strangely after 1600 Mästlin began to distance himself from his most famous pupil, no longer answering all of his letters and declining to help when Kepler was desperately looking for a new position. This cooling of their relationship from the side of the mentor has never been satisfactorily explained but two things probably played a role. On the scientific side Mästlin strongly disapproved of Kepler’s attempts to explain the physical cause of planetary motion, admonishing him to stick to the astronomer’s role of providing mathematical models of that motion and to leave the explanations to the philosophers. Also a thorn in Mästlin’s highly devout Lutheran eyes was Kepler’s sympathy for other religious viewpoints, which led to his being excluded from communion.
Kepler’s was by no means Mästlin’s only renowned student. His most notorious student is certainly Johann Valentin Andreae (1586–1654)
Johann Valentin Andreae Source: Wikimedia Commons
author of the Rosicrucian Chymische Hochzeit Christiani Rosencreutz anno 1459 (Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz) published in 1616
and the Christian utopia Reipublicae Christianopolitanae descriptio (Description of the Republic of Christianopolis) published in 1619. Andreae initially studied theology and mathematics in Tübingen from 1602 till 1605. Mästlin as his mathematics teacher had a major influence on him also introducing him to Kepler with whom he corresponded until the latters death. He was also responsible for Andeae coming into contact with Kepler’s close friend Christoph Besold, who introduced Andreae to the esoteric studies that would lead to his Rosicrucian activities. Andeae’s utopia is, like that from Bacon, one that is endowed with natural philosophy and the mathematical science.
Less notorious but more scientific than Andeae was the polymath Wilhelm Schickard (1592–1635), who as well as being one of Mästlin’s students was also part of the circle of scholars around Besold and Andeae.
Wilhelm Schickard, artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons
Like Mästlin and Kepler, a student on the Tübinger Stift he graduated MA in 1611 and went on to study theology. 1613 he received the first of various clerical posts. In 1617 he meet and got to know Kepler, in Württemberg for his mother’s witch trial. He provided engravings and woodcuts for Kepler’s magnum opus the Harmonice Mundi. In 1619 he was appointed professor for Hebrew in Tübingen and here first displayed his talent for logical analysis and leaning. He invented the Rota Hebræa two rotating discs to help his students learn Hebraic conjugations. He also wrote a Horologium Hebræum a Hebrew textbook in 24 capitals, each of which was learnable in one hour. During his time as professor for Hebrew he was also an active astronomer amongst other things producing highly accurate ephemerides. Schickard was a skilled instrument maker and in 1623 he designed and built the earliest known calculating machine, his Rechenuhr (calculating clock) with the intension of helping Kepler with his astronomical calculations. His calculating machine could only add and subtract but included a set of Napier’s Bones in the form of cylinders to aid multiplication and division. He started to build one for Kepler but it got destroyed in a fire. Knowledge of Schickard’s calculating machine got lost in the seventeenth century but was rediscovered in the twentieth century amongst Kepler’s letters by Max Casper. Bruno von Freytag-Löringhoff reconstructed the machine in the 1960s.
In 1631 Schickard succeeded Mästlin as professor of the mathematical sciences at Tübingen. Like Mästlin, Mästlin’s teacher Apian as well as Kepler, Schickard also worked as a surveyor and cartographer.
Schickard’s Rechenuhr. Reconstruction by Bruno Baron von Freytag-Löringhoff
Throughout his career as an astronomer Mästlin stood in contact and corresponded with nearly all the leading astronomers in Europe. During his later years as professor Mästlin continued working as an active astronomer. Like Kepler he observed the nova of 1604 and the comet of 1618. In 1628 he is known to have observed a lunar eclipse and a second one together with Schickard in 1630. Mästlin was the first person to publish an account of earthshine, the illumination of the moon by sunlight reflected from the earth.
Earthshine reflected from the Moon during conjunction with Venus (left) Source: Wikimedia Commons
Largely forgotten today, except in his role as Kepler’s teacher and an early Copernican, Mästlin was viewed in his own lifetime as one of Europe’s leading astronomers and that with justification.
 Lesley Murdin, Under Newton’s Shadow, Astronomical Practices in the Seventeenth Century, Adam Hilger Ltd., Bristol and Boston, 1985