Separation of Church and State (of Astronomy)

Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630) was a massively important astronomer because he was the first to recognize that orbits were not perfect circles, but in fact ellipses. This was particularly significant because it allowed accurate predictions that supported the heliocentric model. He also found that orbiting objects move faster when closer to the object they are orbiting. Finally, he discovered a relationship between an orbit’s period and semi-major access that gave more understanding of planetary motion.

Founding of Jamestown (1607) – Jamestown was North America’s first permanent English settlement. It became a tobacco exporting economy, which established the cash crop precedent in colonies. Additionally, the colonists founded a form of government with elected representatives that was used by future colonies.

Start of Thirty Years’ War (1618) – The Thirty Years’ War erupted after rulers in the Holy Roman Empire tried to mandate Catholicism as the state religion. Protestants wanted to have religious freedom and revolted. At its conclusion, the war ultimately reduced the influence that religion had on state issues.

Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II (1619 – 1637) – As emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II tried to force Roman Catholicism on the entire empire, starting The Thirty Years’ War. Additionally, he is attributed with unifying Austria into a more cohesive state.

After reading about the historical context that surrounded revelations in the astronomy world, it’s fascinating to see how they coincided with religious reform. Groundbreaking discoveries in astronomy went hand in hand with religious revolution. Their correlation suggests that the progress in astronomy at the time likely would not have been as significant without worldwide uncertainty about the church in the first place. Switching from the Geocentric to Heliocentric model, for example, has ties in both religious and astronomical spheres.

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Historical Astronomers in Context

Isaac Newton was born January 4, 1643 and died March 31, 1727.

Historical events that happened during his life

Charles I beheading was January 30, 1649. He was put on trial for treason and declared guilty soon after.

Restoration of England was a period that began in 1660 and ended in 1685. It meant for the restoration of the English monarchy.

Learning the time periods of these astronomical figures was interesting to learn because I never considered how long ago it was when they lived. It puts their discoveries more into context and how revolutionary it was. I also liked looking at the other non-astronomical events in Isaac Newton’s life. It puts more dimension onto history and how his life wasn’t only astronomy/science. 

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Historical Astronomers in Context

Galileo Galilei was important to astronomy because he disproved the Aristotelian theory about the immutability of the heavens. Additionally, he managed to invent a telescope with a magnification of 30 times. Additionally, he was able to observe the moon in great detail and even make estimated topographic maps of its surface. He also was able to prove that Jupiter had moons revolving around it, which helped disprove the geocentric theory of the universe. He was also able to observe many other celestial objects in detail earning him the title, “The Father of Observation Astronomy.” Wikipedia

In 1614, John Napier discovered the logarithm. This was very important because it vastly improved the mathematical capabilities of the world. In 1619, a Dutch ship brought the first African American slaves to North America, starting one of the largest eras of slavery in history. Timeline of the 1600s

Charles I, the King of England was born November 19, 1600, and died January 30, 1649. He married a Catholic princess from Spain, sparking anti-Catholic and anti-monarchist movements in England, causing the English Civil War. He refused to allow a constitutional monarchy which led to his execution. Wikipedia

I think that it was interesting to learn about the context of Galileo’s life because it further showed the progression of thought and rejection of former ideas. The logarithm was discovered showing an increase in mathematical ability, and England moved towards a constitutional monarchy, showing the rejection of the previously held notions of the divinity of the monarchy. These both pair well with Galileo’s rejection of the immutable heavens and the geocentric universe. 

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Johannes Kepler in Context

Johannes Kepler was born December 27th 1571 and died November 15th 1630. Some of his most prolific discoveries lied in the three major laws of planetary motion. The first law concluded that planets move around the sun in an elliptical orbit. The second is that the time it takes for a planet to move around a portion of the orbit is directly proportional to the area between the focal point and the arc of distance travelled. The third is the relationship between the square of a planet’s orbital time and the cube of the radii of the orbital path.

During the time of Kepler’s life many important historical events were unfolding. One of these events was the reunification of Japan in 1590 after over a hundred years of fighting between feudal lords. Another event was the arrival the Mayflower, carrying 102 Puritan passengers we know call the pilgrims, to North America.

Along with revolutionary events there were also other legendary people living at the same time as Kepler. One of whom is William Shakespeare. Shakespeare was known for writing some of the most influential plays of all time including Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and many more.

It was really fascinating setting the time period of when the astronomical discoveries we are discussing in class were made. To think of learning the earth orbits the sun in juxtaposition with the reunification of Japan, the pilgrims and Shakespeare is truly a powerful window into life as Johannes Kepler would have seen it and would have seen the stars. It helps understand the theories even better once put into context with things I have already studied and understand.

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Galileo in Context


More info on Galileo

A significant event that happened during Galileo’s time was the settlement of Jamestown,Virginia.(1606)

Another significant event that happened was the publication of the King James Bible in England.(1611)

A significant figure that was alive during Galileo’s time was William Shakespeare.Shakespeare was born April 23, 1564.He died on April 23,1616.Shakespeare is interesting because he wrote some of the most influential literary pieces of his time.

More info on Shakespeare

It is interesting to learn that Galileo’s accomplishments didn’t happen that long ago.His contributions to astronomy are about as old as the English colonies in the new world.This conveys the lack of knowledge we have about astronomy.This field is very new and there is a lot more to be discovered in the field.

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Historical Astronomers in Context


Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus (February 19, 1473 – May 24, 1543) is incredibly important to the history of astronomy. He was the one to first suggest that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Instead he surmised that the Earth and the neighboring planets revolved around the sun, thus stirring up controversy amongst many.  His ideas for how the planets are arranged to revolve around the sun formed the basis upon which the scientists that followed utilized.

Other important events that occurred during this time was in the year 1492. Explorer Christopher Columbus lands in what is now present day Bahamas. This is important because it leads to the discovery of the Americas and the entirety of the New World.

As exploration was prominent during these years, another notable expedition occurred in the year 1498. Vasco da Gama sails bellow the tip of Africa and makes it all the way to India.

One very influential person in this time was Martin Luther (November 10, 1483-February 18, 1546). He is important for his actions that acted as a sort of catalyst for religious reformation. In the year 1517, Martin Luther posts his 95 theses and this leads to the protest against the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation begins as new denominations emerge all over Europe.

 When studying certain individual such as Copernicus, it may seem only relevant to learn about his main discovery or contribution to science. However, upon researching more about the time period upon which his discoveries were made, it is easier to see why his actions were so revolutionary. To modern day society, knowing that the Earth orbits the sun is normal and not special in the sense that is now become common knowledge. But when understanding the time period upon which this idea was proposed it is clear why it was groundbreaking and even courageous in the way he was able to stand up to the church. This is why learning in this contextual type way is important.

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Johannes Kepler in Historical Context

The Great Courses Daily

Johannes Kepler (December 27, 1571 – November 15, 1630) revolutionized astronomy and improved upon the works of previous astronomers (including Copernicus and Tycho) in multiple ways. Kepler was able to develop a mathematical model of the universe that was heliocentric and was both more accurate and simpler than that of Ptolemy, whose geocentric model with epicycles and deferents had reigned for well over a millennium. Kepler did so by allowing orbits of celestial bodies to be ellipses, not circles, as he framed in his first law of planetary motion. Kepler’s second law relates his discovery of planets’ changing velocities, as they tend to move faster as they become closer to the gravitational source. Lastly, his third law describes a mathematical relationship between the length of an orbit and the object’s distance from the gravitational source.

The Protestant Reformation (1517 – 1600) resulted in the division of Western Christianity into Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, and led to a significant reevaluation of Christian beliefs and traditions for those who split off from the Catholic Church. The Thirty Years’ War (1618 – 1648) was a series of battles fought mostly over modern-day Germany which resulted in diminished power and influence for Spain and increased power and influence for France.

William Shakespeare (April 26, 1564 – April 23, 1616) was a widely successful poet, playwright, dramatist, and actor who lived in England, and whose works (including Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth) are still very popular to this day.

Learning this context helped me realize how many events and transformations were happening at the time of the Copernican Revolution beyond just that of science and astronomy. Christianity was forever changed by the Protestant Reformation, the politics and powers of Europe were reorganized at the conclusion of the 30 Years War, and at the same time lived who is often recognized as the world’s greatest playwright, William Shakespeare. All of these, in addition to the Copernican Revolution, happened at roughly the same time five centuries ago in different corners of Europe, and yet all had massive consequences still observed today. The 1500s and early 1600s were truly a transformative time for Europe, and left impacts in astronomy, religion, politics, literature, and many other disciplines.

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Historical Astronomers in Context

Johannes Kepler: December 27, 1571 to November 15, 1630 (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Born in Germany during the 16th century, Kepler was born to a poor Lutheran family. However, his views on both a heliocentric solar system and his personal beliefs contradicting the Lutheran Faith in the Formula of Concord resulted in him alone in a time of religious strife, despite his own religious beliefs.

After a math education at a university, he worked with another man by the name of Tycho Brahe, a wealthy man and the best naked eye observer of the night sky. After his death, Kepler took his data and continued to do calculations with it, eventually creating three laws that determined how the planets roamed around the night sky. This was a heliocentric model similar to Copernicus, but had several improvements and changes.

  1. Planets do not move in perfect circles, but rather ellipses.
  2. The area a line connecting the planet to the star crosses is equal for equal portions of time. At more elliptical orbits, the planet would move faster when closer to the star and slower farther away, but the area would be the same.
  3. he equation for the time taken for a planet to rotate around a sun was       P^2 = k*(A)^3 where P was the period and A was the semi major axis of the orbit.

For more information, click here for NASA’s information or here for more detail on Kepler’s personal life.

A few things going on during this time…

The foundation of Jamestown

Jamestown (image from Land of the Brave)

The foundation of the first English permanent colony, Jamestown, was established during Kepler’s life. In 1607, Jamestown was founded, and became the beginning of the English colonies that would evolve into America. Essentially, the first colonists and pilgrims later in 1620 navigated to the other side of the world into unknown territory using stars, yet they all believed that the earth was at the center of the universe. Fun fact, I was born a few minutes away from here in Hampton Virginia on the same peninsula.

Japanese Invasion of the Korean Peninsula

Turtle Ship scaled down model in Seoul, South Korea (image from Wikipedia)

On the other side of the globe, the Japanese invasions of Korea were occurring from 1592 to 1598. Although nothing to do with European culture nor astronomy I wanted to put this down since I am Korean. Many of the Korean successful defenses were on sea, led by Admiral Yi, who is oft considered to be the greatest naval commander ever. In addition to this, he was the inventor of the turtle ship, the first ship ever to be armored in iron. Able to ram, pivot on a point, and emit sulfur smoke all while firing cannon, Admiral Yi won all 16 of his battles with extreme ease. This design and ships were destroyed later by later kings but were revived again by the United States when they designed an ironclad ship to fight the Confederacy in 1862. The two ironclad ships fought, again, in my hometown of Hampton, Virginia.

J.S. Bach was born

Johannes Bach was born in 1604. One of the most famous composers of all time, he was also one of the most prolific. He became an organist and was commissioned for several pieces of church music, my favorite being the St. Matthew’s Passion. The fact that people were still discovering the other side of the world during all of this is quite mind boggling. People are looking to the skies and determining accurately how and when these planets will come into view while there were no accurate maps of the eastern American coast at the time. An entire hemisphere was being explored by Europeans while Kepler was already calculating the laws of physics governing other planets.

Furthermore, technology was not as advanced. The Turtle Ship by Admiral Yi was by far the most advanced ship of its era, arguably across the globe. Even still, it had no iron hull; iron ships would not exist until 1859. It was propelled by sails, since there were no steamboats invented till 1807. Traveling upstream a river without oars was considered an arduous task at the time. Galileo’s telescope was quite primitive, and even with the wealth of Tycho Brahe, naked eye observations can only give so much information.

Finally, Johannes Bach lived during a time where the church was the cornerstone to everything in life. Almost everyone in Europe went to church and believed what was taught by the priest. Contradicting scripture or anything that was considered part of “God’s perfect design” would be not only looked down upon by the church but also society.

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Historical Astronomers in Context

Johannes Kepler

Kepler was born December 27, 1571, and died on November 15, 1630, at 58 years old. He was an astronomer, a mathematician, and a philosopher. He worked with Tycho Brahe and used his observations to deduce his first law of planetary motion: 1) planets move in elliptical orbits with the Sun at one focus. His other two laws, 2) a line joining a planet and its sun sweeps out equal amounts of area in equal times, and 3) the square of the period of a planet’s orbit is proportional to the cube of the radius (or semi-major axis) of its orbit, were important discoveries in understanding the motions of our solar system.

Other Important Events and People During Kepler’s Lifetime

1582 – Pope Gregory XIII issued the Gregorian calendar, replacing the Julian calendar. The Pope wanted to move Easter back to the time of year it was originally celebrated.

1620 – The Mayflower, with her 102 Pilgrim passengers, arrived at Cape Cod in America. They wanted to live and worship freely in a “new land,” which was already occupied by the Native Americans. 

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616. He is considered one of the greatest writers and playwrights of all time.

Timeline I made myself using this website.


It was interesting to learn these dates in the context of other important events. I guess I always assumed that the Pilgrims arrived in America much later than Shakespeare and these important astronomers were alive. I think the biggest surprise for me was that Kepler was alive when the Mayflower landed. It feels like they lived during entirely different centuries. It really puts into perspective how recently we learned about some of the fundamental truths of the universe and its motions.

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Historical Astronomers in Context

#2 – Issac Newton was extremely important to the field of astronomy, with one of his most important contributions being calculus. Newton had devised new mathematical principles to model some of his observations in Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Additionally, Newton had theorized that all objects are affected by each other by the concept of gravity, pulling each other together. In 1704, Newton had also published Opticks, which theorized that light was made of some particles called “corpuscles”, and also showed how white light was a combination of all light colors.

#3a –

  1. At the same time when Newton was alive, the Nine Years’ War had occurred, lasting from 1688 to 1697. Sometimes called the first global war, it involved most world powers at the time, and occured in several continents. 
  2. Thomas Savery, an English inventor, had created the first steam engine and presented it to the Royal Society in 1699.

#3b – The “Father of Microbiology”, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, was alive from 24 Oct 1632 – 26 Aug 1723. He was the first person to see and describe a bacteria cell observed under a microscope.

#4 – The above activities were interesting to learn as I did not previously think to check if any famous scientists were alive concurrently with others. Additionally, I liked to see how each astronomer had vastly different (but also somewhat similar) things going on in their lifetimes.

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