Mars Meets the Sun, Kepler Steals the Gold

In his 1609 “Commentaries on the Motion of Mars,” German astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote, “I am stealing the golden vessels of the Egyptians to build a tabernacle to my God from them, far far away from the boundaries of Egypt.” This week, the planet Mars comes to its once-every-two-years meeting with the Sun, on Saturday.

Legend holds that Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was observing Mars when he was struck with the inspiration that the Earth was orbiting the Sun, which is stating it in the most elementary way possible. Copernicus died in 1543, before this heliocentric, or Sun-centered system was fully established.

Then came Johannes Kepler, who was born about 30 years later, and who devoted the better part of his research to discerning the cosmic harmony described in this planetary motion. While Copernicus imagined the Earth and planets moving in circular orbits around the Sun, it was Kepler who realized that planets move in ellipses, which really opens up the poetic imagination, for the circle, while whole, doesn’t require as much consciousness in relationship as an ellipse does. Just think of it, Kepler described how the planets move in ellipses around a central body that does not occupy the center of the ellipse, but one of two focal points. This means that planets sometimes orbit closer and sometimes further away from the central object, and their speed adjusts accordingly. This isn’t just the magic of celestial mechanics, but the demonstration of a divine harmony that models an ideal social form.

The ancient Egyptians sought to emulate this cosmic harmony and it’s this that Kepler was stealing from them, to dedicate the realization of this high cosmic order to the glory of his God, centuries later.

The anniversary of Kepler’s death is Wednesday, November 15.


This episode airs on Interlochen Public Radio Monday, November 13, 2023, and can be heard on podcasts everywhere, at anytime. Cover image from Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi.