Kepler's Optical Part of Astronomy (1604): Introducing the ecliptic instrument

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The year 2009 marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of one of the most revolutionary scientific texts ever written. In this book, appropriately entitled, Astronomia nova, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) developed an astronomical theory which departs fundamentally from the systems of Ptolemy and Copernicus. One of the great innovations of this theory is its dependence on the science of optics. The declared goal of Kepler in his earlier publication, Paralipomena to Witelo whereby The Optical Part of Astronomy is Treated (Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena, quibus astronomiae pars optica traditvr, 1604), was to solve difficulties and expose illusions astronomers face when conducting astronomical observations with optical instruments. To avoid observational errors that had plagued the antiquated measuring techniques for calculating the apparent diameter and angular position of the luminaries, Kepler designed a novel device: the ecliptic instrument. In this paper we seek to shed light on the role optical instruments play in Kepler's scheme: they impose constraints on theory, but at the same time render astronomical knowledge secure. To get a comprehensive grasp of Kepler's astonishing achievements it is required to widen the approach to his writings and study Kepler not only as a mathematico-physical astronomer, but also as a designer of instruments and a practicing observer.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)307-345
Number of pages39
JournalPerspectives on Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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