When you’ve seen my business card, some of you have asked me why my email address is jkepler? The short, superficial answer is that I didn’t want to be bothered with yet another email account. The more substantial answer is that jkepler is named after Johannes Kepler, the German scientist, who is a sort of hero of mine.
Johannes Kepler (December 27, 1571 – November 15, 1630) lived a generation before Isaac Newton and is best known for his laws of planetary motion, which provided a foundation for Newton’s work describing gravity. Kepler was a Christian, and his understanding of God as the Creator shaped and motivated his drive to study the universe. Kepler’s notebooks record prayers of thanksgiving and praise to God interspersed with scientific observations notebooks, such as the following:
I give you thanks, Creator and God, that you have given me this joy in thy creation, and I rejoice in the works of your hands. See I have now completed the work to which I was called. In it I have used all the talents you have lent to my spirit. (cited in Pearcey & Thaxton, “The Soul of Science” 1994, p. 23)
Kepler’s Christian belief was much more than religious devotion alongside scientific study. His conviction that God had created a real creation out of nothing provided him with confidence that there were reasons why things were the way they were. The universe wasn’t arbitrary or capricious, rather it is made how God wanted it.
A key insight in Kepler’s formulation of the laws of planetary motion is that the shape of a planet’s orbit is an ellipse, not a circle. For at least two thousand years people had believed that planets orbited in circles, because of the Platonic Greek belief that the physical world was an imperfect reflection of the realm of Ideas, and obviously a circle is more ideal than an ellipse. Kepler found a slight difference of eight minutes between his observations of the orbit of Mars and his calculations based on the long-held belief of circular orbits. What could cause him to break with the reigning tradition of circular orbits? Kepler’s belief that nature was precise caused him to agonize over those eight minutes and eventually led him to break with two thousand years of traditional belief in circular orbits in favor of the ellipse. He spoke of those eight minutes as a “gift of God.”
Perhaps Kepler took his cue from John Calvin, a towering theologian and churchman who also understood and taught the legitimacy and need for all manner of vocations in life. Calvin didn’t just call for devotional reflection on creation; he also called for active work in creation, both practically and intellectually, saying “There is need of art and more exacting toil in order to investigate the motion of the stars, to determine their assigned stations, to measure their intervals, to note their properties.” (cited in Pearcey & Thaxton, “The Soul of Science” 1994, p. 23)
Johannes Kepler is one of my heroes because he provides a great model for believers who are called to work in scientific fields. He didn’t hide his faith in God from his scientific studies, rather it informed his work and provided him with the convictions to really observe and study the real world. If he hadn’t acknowledged the reality of God the Creator, he would have had no basis for his conviction that nature had precise order, no basis for challenging the accepted Platonic tradition of circular orbits. He didn’t see a dichotomy between his ‘sacred’ beliefs and ‘secular’ work, but saw the cosmos and his place within it as a unity under the Creator. This freed him to study the world around him, and our contemporary scientific understanding of the universe owes him a great debt.