O Male Factum: Rectilinearity and Kepler's Discovery of the Ellipse

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In 1596, in the Mysterium Cosmographicum, a twenty-five-year-old Johannes Kepler rashly banished lines from the universe. They “scarcely admit of order,” he wrote, and God himself could have no use for them in this “well-ordered universe.” Twenty-five years later, though, Kepler had come to repent the temerity of his youth. “O male factum!” he lamented in a 1621 second edition of the Mysterium – “O what a mistake” it was to dismiss lines, for linearity is revealed in those most perfect and divine motions – the revolutions of the heavenly orbs. Why did Kepler come to lament the rashness of his youth? The answer lies deep in the details of Kepler’s discovery of elliptical orbits in 1605. Kepler struggled to find an empirically adequate description and physically plausible explanation of Mars’s path through the heavens. He realized, though, that his originally spherical notion of location and direction were insufficient to reconcile descriptions and explanations of the planet’s motion. Crucially inspired by the “magnetic philosophy” of William Gilbert, Kepler adopted an oriented conception of space, which finally allowed a plausible mechanism to be constructed for elliptical motion – the true path of the planet. Yet, this oriented space required the stipulation of straight lines. Without straight lines, even God could not construct the planets’ elliptical orbits.
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Archival date: 2016-01-20
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