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New Astronomy.

At last! Kepler's Nova Astronomia, which appeared in 1609, proposed a revolution in astronomical thought. Here was a celestial physics to complement the Copernican hypothesis. Here Kepler set forth his first two laws of celestial motion: the planetary orbit is an ellipse with the sun as one of the loci; and the radius vector drawn from the sun describes equal areas in equal times. Two cherished canons of astronomy were thus destroyed - circular motion and uniform velocity. He knew his contemporaries would resist these results, so Kepler gave his reader what was supposedly a step-by-step description of the calculations and miscalculations he had made as he meandered his way toward solving the problems posed by his attempt to map the orbit of Mars. "If this wearisome method has filled you with loathing," he pleaded, "it should more properly fill you with compassion for me, as I have gone through it at least seventy times at the expense of a great deal of time" (256). The book apparently was too boring - or perhaps too difficult - for his contemporaries, for the laws it proposed had little impact until Kepler published his textbook version in Epitome astronomiae copernicae in 1620.

Thus, from the first, this classic work was neglected. It was only translated in 1929 into German by Max Caspar. Even Great Books of the Western World ignored it in favor of excerpts from the Epitome and Harmonices mundi. Owen Gingerich announced in his article on Kepler in The Dictionary of Scientific Biography (1973) that he and a colleague were working on a translation of the New Astronomy, but that never materialized. And so we are grateful that William Donahue has taken up the project and heroically stayed with it, despite the fact that it "required somewhat more time than Kepler took" (xv). Its contents are of interest to more than Kepler scholars, who presumably can read the Latin, although the ambiguities and neologisms in it make it difficult for them as well. But people interested in the history of science or in the creative process who have been curious about how Kepler arrived at his radical conclusions have too long been denied access to the book that seemed to describe his odyssey.

The most commonly accepted interpretation of Nova Astronomia is Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers (1959), which took Kepler's description literally and suggested that he blindly fell into his conclusions. Now Donahue's translation shows us that Koestler's version was a doctored description of how Kepler discovered those laws. This reinforces Bruce Stephenson's suggestion in Kepler's Physical Astronomy (1987) that Kepler knew how incredible his ideas would appear to his contemporaries and so wrote the New Astronomy as a rhetorical piece to convince them that his conclusions were inescapable. Donahue tried to duplicate all of Kepler's calculations and found that not all of them worked. Nor were the chapters written in the order that the work was done, for some of the earlier chapters contained information that could only have come from Kepler's later work.

Donahue's introduction describing the background to Kepler's writing the New Astronomy and some of the problems it entailed is inadequate for such an important and neglected work. A glossary explains the nuances of Kepler's language and its translation, but in the knotty case of species Donahue writes, "I have . . . thrown up my hands, admitted defeat, and declined to translate it at all" (24). Indeed, the translations Donahue had available are inadequate; too bad he didn't have Stephenson's "image." The notes give some commentary on the text, but they too are inadequate. Fortunately, Donahue has indicated that a companion volume will be forthcoming.

Donahue's excellent translation sticks close to the Latin original, even duplicating the italicized portions and the marginal glosses. And his English is readable, that is, as readable as could be without cutting three-quarters of the text.

SHEILA J. RABIN St. Peter's College
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Author:Rabin, Sheila J.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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