Guido’s Corner

By Mike Fiorito


Creaking and choking, the carriage shifted on its axles and rattled. The mindless carriage horses had no idea that they pulled the great German mathematician, Johannes Kepler, up the steep road.

To Kepler it felt like he was journeying to the top of a prodigious mountain, high in the sky. But in fact he knew he was heading to meet Tycho Brahe, the legendary Danish astronomer.

Perched on the bluff stood Benatky Castle in Prague, where Brahe revolutionized the technology of astronomy, designing and constructing observatory instruments and mechanisms.

Not only was Kepler realizing his dreams, he was also fleeing the German city of Graz to escape religious persecution. A Protestant in a city of Catholics was like being a chicken surrounded by foxes. He needed a fresh start. Brahe had extended a unique offer to Kepler. And so he ran. He ran into the bosom of a new era, leaving his wife and family behind so he could find fame and fortune for them all.

Forging a new Rome, a new age, The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II had assembled a host of intellectuals in Prague: scientists, philosophers, poets, artists. Among them was Brahe.

But Emperor Rudolph II was no fool. He would provide Brahe with finances and a safe haven to work, if Brahe agreed to name his astronomical catalog the Rudolphine Tables.

Here was Brahe’s problem. He was an inventive instrument designer and meticulous cataloger, but his data were going round and round in circles. He simply did not possess the mathematical genius to extrapolate theories of motion from the data he amassed. In addition, Brahe believed that the Earth was at the center of the solar system. So while he needed Kepler, he knew that Kepler held that the solar system was heliocentric. Brahe would therefore have to manage Kepler’s work without allowing him to destroy his geocentric theory.

Years earlier, Brahe had published a call to mathematicians to offer interpretations on the planetary motion data he accumulated. Kepler answered Brahe’s call with a brilliant mathematical paper. Though Kepler was an unknown country bumpkin from Graz, Brahe was stunned by Kepler’s ingenuity. This mathematical work was the reason Kepler then received his invitation from Brahe.

After settling in from his long journey to Benatky Castle, Kepler was received with a grand reception from Brahe and his royal family.

A few weeks later, Kepler grew puzzled. The castle itself was in disarray. Workmen hauled in Brahe’s massive astronomical equipment and parts, then hammered, and welded, creating a din of constant noise in the house.

In addition to the racket, Kepler was completely ignored for almost a month after his arrival. Brahe, however, was kind enough to bombard him with German meats, puddings and pies as if he’d come to Benatky Castle merely for sumptuous banquets. Brahe would continue to struggle with showing Kepler his data.

Finally, following dinner one evening, Kepler asked Brahe about the recent observations of the Mars parallax.

“Do you believe that Mars comes closer to the Sun than the Earth?” Kepler shouted over the machine clamor and rowdy clatter.

Not wanting to entirely divulge an answer, Brahe mumbled that he was engaged in such inquiries in his research.

“What did you say, sir?” asked Kepler.

“I said my nose is perfectly fine since the operation,” replied Brahe, suddenly, referring to the golden prosthetic nose that he personally designed and had surgically implanted on his face.

Looking at Brahe’s nose, Kepler realized that Brahe had probably misunderstood his German, but continued with the discussion.

“Do you have to take it off, sir, from fear of infection?” said Kepler, going along with Brahe’s dodge.

Brahe ignored Kepler’s questions and addressed one of his daughters.

Feeling foolish and profoundly alone, Kepler requested more wine and slowly drank himself into a stupor. After stumbling back to his room that night, Kepler opened his diary. He wrote that although when Brahe issued the invitation he’d promised discussions of “lofty topics face to face in an agreeable manner,” it was clear that Kepler was no more than a hired hand. He described life at Benatky Castle as boisterous and irksome. Unlike his family who sat in quiet repose during dinners, the Brahe household was a constant carnival. In short, dreary reality doused his high hopes and dreams.

“How long would this go on?” he wrote. “Will he ever take me into his confidence?” He sat in his room crying, tears streaming down his face. He felt imprisoned. And worse, he’d abandoned his family for a pipedream to live with a lunatic instrument maker.

Another few weeks passed. Brahe gave Kepler yet another tour of his extensive and versatile kitchen. He boasted that he maintained both a German pastry chef and a traditional Danish pastry chef.

In a state of utter depression and desperation, Kepler resolved to venture from his quarters at night to survey what he could of Brahe’s observatory and reference books.

One evening, tiptoeing down the main corridor that led to the observatory, Kepler tripped over a crate of imported Bordeaux wine, but managed to steady himself and keep his candle aflame.

“These drunken Danes,” he whispered.

“How does anyone get work done with all of this drinking?” he continued, now leaning back to drink from the whisky flask stored in the pocket of his plush, borrowed red robe, garishly decorated with the Brahe family coat of arms.

Once in the observatory, Kepler found it a complete mess. Instruments were strewn everywhere. Some were still in crates, some had remained in boxes; others were being prepped for adjustments and refitting.

Navigating with candlelight, Kepler wended his way to the library that housed the scrolls. Among them were research books chained to shelves and piles of notebooks. Kepler had hoped that in this treasure trove he’d find Brahe’s catalogs and precious data. No one else in Europe, or anywhere for that matter, possessed Brahe’s collection of recorded observations. Though Brahe might be a madman, he was the only person in the world who could help Kepler make or break his mathematically derived theories of planetary motion.

Placing the candle down, Kepler took another spike from his flask and excitedly tore open the notebooks. He turned the pages of The Tychonic System Tables gasping and out of breath.

What is this, he thought, leaning his head back in utter surprise. The first few pages had rows and rows of tables, cataloging the movements of the planets and the Sun, but the most recent entries had drawings and brief passages.

Kepler noticed a cartoon cruelly depicting his large stomach and elongated nose. The caption read: Kepler, The German Cobbler. Another read: Kepler, Professor of German Swine.

As Kepler read on, he discovered pages and pages of Danish recipes and menu entries: Pike with Turnips, Venison with Currant Sauce, Chicken Pâté, and Goose Liver with Cucumbers. The entries were replete with comparisons regarding the depravity of the German equivalents.

One section read as follows:

Danish Rum Pudding: Beat egg yolks and sugar until lemon colored. Soak gelatin in ¼ cup water and melt over hot water (do not use German cherries, for fear of flatulence). Combine egg yolks and gelatin mixture and add rum. Let stand until it begins to thicken. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites, then whipped cream. Chill until firm. Serves 12. Serve with raspberry sauce. Do not invite clodhopper German farmers to the party.

“This is utter claptrap,” shouted Kepler aloud, stomping his feet now, and running his hand along the roundness of his belly.

“Balderdash. Twaddle.”

The very next day, Kepler scuttled about the castle huffing and puffing. And, of course, Brahe ignored him.

At dinner the next night, Kepler stared at Brahe’s fake nose with mock intensity. That’s it, Kepler thought to himself, seething with hatred.

“I will never again discuss astronomy with Brahe,” he said under his breath.

“What is it, Kepler?” asked Brahe.

“I said that I’m curious to try more of your German pastry,” Kepler cleverly answered.

“And the Danish ones, too,” added Brahe, his flattery now just a ruse to poke at his unwitting host.

“Yes, yes, you should have all of the pastry you desire,” said Brahe. To himself Brahe thought, he seems more interested in sweets and cakes than in my astronomy.

With his stunning mathematical powers, however, Kepler recorded and analyzed the recipe notebooks at night.

Eventually, Kepler discovered that Brahe encrypted his data in the form of recipes. Brilliant, but insidious, he thought.

“Not only have I scoured his precious catalogs, I will have the last laugh,” snickered Kepler to himself. He was getting closer every day, combing the data. From what he could tell so far, the data contradicted Brahe’s belief that the Sun revolved around the Earth.

“It will be grand when the tables are turned,” scoffed Kepler.

At this point, Kepler’s apparent lack of interest in Brahe’s work diminished Brahe’s paranoia. Instead, Brahe was now annoyed at Kepler’s insolence.

“This German yokel remains on my payroll and even has the nerve to sleep during dinner! How impertinent! How ungrateful! Doesn’t this hayseed boor know the company he is in?” wrote Brahe in his diary.

One night, as Kepler’s eyes were growing heavy after dinner, Brahe decided it was perhaps time to put this lowbrow hick from Graz to work.

“I’d like to show you the exciting inventions I’ve made in my observatory, Kepler.”

Brahe declined to mention anything about his legendary catalogs, which, of course, Kepler had discovered and read thoroughly.

Brahe himself had designed many of the complex instruments in his observatory. It is true that telescopes had not yet been invented, but with these ingenious apparatuses Brahe observed the movements of the planets and the stars, as well as the positions of comets and novae.

“This is my masterpiece,” said Brahe, standing astride his Quadrans Mediocris Orichalcicus Azimuthalis, or Medium Azimuth Quadrant of Brass.

“Come, come now. I’ll show you,” said Brahe. Brahe demonstrated how to manipulate the plumb lines and sighting arms of the Medium Azimuth. This resourceful design enabled him to determine the position of stars by reference to known objects.

As Brahe ascended the Medium Azimuth on a ladder, Kepler looked straight up at Brahe’s rotund bottom.

His clothes hide his fatness and he has the nerve to mock me, thought Kepler. He wears these outrageous kingly robes, but obviously he’s hiding quite a load himself. What with his roast lambs, sugar cakes, beef with horseradish, no wonder his backside is so big.

Despite these ruminations, Kepler paid rapt attention to Brahe’s instructions. He knew that he would have to spot-check the data himself. He’d have to become master of the Medium Azimuth, so he could be certain when he published his work. Otherwise, he’d be the fool of the entire scientific community. Kepler took another look into the Medium Azimuth. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Suddenly he saw a whirlwind of images spinning in a corner of space: the finger bone of Saint John the Baptist, the skull of Saint Zenobius, a lathe-thin man with one lame eye trapped in a Riemann surface cube, and a silver reliquary containing the nose of Saint Paul.

This vision was accompanied by a chorus of angels singing in unison. The sound had the force of a mighty ocean swallowing an entire continent. It sounded like it contained every sound in the history of the cosmos. He pulled away from the Azimuth, rubbed his eyes and shook his head. Maybe I haven’t been getting enough sleep, he thought.

Whatever it was, daydream or mirage, Kepler regained his senses. It was as if a door of the universe had been opened. It was now clear to him that Brahe was more focused on proving his own Earth-centered system, instead of practicing true science by following the data wherever it led him. This explained Brahe’s reluctance to share his catalog with Kepler and other scientists.

A few weeks later, at dinner one night, Kepler, now emboldened by indifference and an inordinate amount of alcohol, grew visibly annoyed at Brahe.

“To believe that the Sun is at the center of the solar system is utterly ridiculous,” crowed Brahe, out of the blue. Almost eight months had passed by and this was his first mention of astronomy.

“What did you say about German pastry?” asked Kepler, employing his master’s own strategy on him.

“The solar system is clearly Ptolemaic and not Copernican,” shouted Brahe, raising his voice now.

“But,” replied Kepler, now deciding to take the bait, “I believe that the Sun is at the center of the solar system.”

“Copernicus was a Polish fool,” pouted Brahe. “And so are you for saying that.”

“The mathematics bear Copernicus out, time and time again.”

“And how do you make this claim?”

“I am not a German cobbler, Herr Astronomer, nor do I prefer lime pie over Danish rum puddings.”

“You impertinent boob,” replied Brahe, suddenly realizing that he had been tricked by Kepler. He must have read my diaries, and perhaps even my research, thought Brahe.

The next day, Kepler left Benatky Castle and quickly returned to Germany.

He soon published his monumental laws of planetary motion and made his permanent place in the history of science.

Many years later, shamed and ridiculed, Brahe published various books of Danish recipes. The first printing was a complete failure, and the books soon went out of print.