Kepler, Koestler, Kuhn and Kudos

Magris’ choice of Kepler as an archetypal intellectual hero is not quite as obscure as his Salgari citation, but it may also fail to resonate. For an English-speaking audience, the tutelary deity (the word “genius” is often abused in this context) of the era in which the high scientific renaissance tipped over into The Enlightenment, was, is, and shall forever be, Sir Isaac Newton.

Holbein-ambassadors_detail2However, there are other ways of ordering the pantheon. Those who seek to downplay Newton’s achievements argue that, towering intellect though he clearly was, his strength lay in finessing the ideas of others.

The controversy, for instance, over who invented The Calculus (the other contender is Leibniz) rumbles on in some of the dustier corners of academia. And there are, likewise, those who take greater pleasure in Kepler’s Astronomia Nova, published in 1609, than they do in Newton’s Principia, which arrived three generations later in 1687.

In more recent times, Kepler’s cause in Britain was hardly helped by the publication in 1959 of Arthur Koestler’s The Holbein-ambassadors_detail1Sleepwalkers. And yes, it’s true that Koestler was a star (of sorts) in the British literary firmament. This was his adoptive country (he’d arrived after the fall of France in 1940); his most famous work, Darkness at Noon, had been first published here; and he was now writing almost exclusively in English.

Yet he was regarded with barely concealed suspicion. Not because he was a Hungarian and a journalist by trade; and not entirely because he was a Hungarian journalist with a dubious political background and the sort of colourful personal life that is often assumed to be the diagnostic indicator of low moral fibre.

After all, he was eventually accepted as a national asset when, in 1972, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Holbein-ambassadors_detail3Empire. No. Koestler’s crime was of a simpler sort: The Sleepwalkers was a dazzling contribution to the history of ideas. His primarily audience (then as now) is suspicious of so-called (or even self-styled) intellectuals.

And be in no doubt, The Sleepwalkers is a dazzling book. It is one of the most important books of the 20th Century, a book not just about scientific enlightenment but also, figuratively, about our broader cultural and political fumblings (semi-conscious, groggy, befuddled) out of darkness.

It is arguably far more important than Thomas Kuhn’s more celebrated, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published three years later – the book, incidentally, that brought us the notion of the paradigm shift.

Holbein-ambassadors_detail4And of course there is no greater paradigm shift in the history of human ideas than the one delineated in The Sleepwalkers. Billed as “the whole history of cosmology from the Babylonians to Newton,” its cast list includes Copernicus, Brahe and Galileo as well as Newton – but, although Koestler is more than generous as regards Newton, in the book it is Kepler who takes most credit for mankind’s greatest intellectual leap forward.

Kepler was the first man to understand (and derive a mathematical model for) the orbits of the planets in our solar system. To borrow another of Kuhn’s cutesy formulations, if Newton invented gravity, it was Kepler who discovered it.

As for Koestler, he would almost certainly have admired Magris’ book about Danubia. They share not just an Austro-Hungarian Holbein-ambassadors_detail5sensibility but also the melancholy that comes from acknowledging that there is an elusive mischief in all things, no matter how serious or dark.

Koestler knew a thing or two about darkness – and the twilight too. And yet he was one of the most energetic and colourful characters of the mid part of the 20th Century. He resisted the rise of Hitler as a member of the German Communist Party in the early 1930s, was imprisoned by Franco during the Spanish Civil War, rendered service to British intelligence agencies during the 1939-45 war and was an intermediary between British power brokers and Menachem Begin prior to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

He was a bit like the Woody Allen character, Zelig – popping up where history was being made and generally weaving himself into Holbein-ambassadors_detail8the cultural fabric of the times. He was, for instance, the only journalist aboard the Graf Zeppelin’s fabled Polar Flight in 1931; was co-author of the first explicit sex manual; was an earlier experimenter (alongside Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary) with hallucinogenic drugs; was a prominent campaigner against capital punishment; and was a surprisingly credulous believer in the paranormal – for instance, he founded the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at Edinburgh University.

Koestler committed suicide in 1983. In 1998, following the publication of a biography claiming that he had raped several women during his lifetime, female students at Edinburgh University succeeded in having a bronze bust of him removed from public display.

Holbein-ambassadors_detail6During the current century he has dipped even further into obscurity; and his hero Johannes Kepler has fared only slightly better. In 2009, NASA’s Kepler space telescope was launched into orbit around the sun in a $600 million mission to discover new planets. Back in May 2013, it was announced that Kepler was broken and could not be fixed.

Back to The Black Forest
Or on to Why Arthur Koestler was never invited to enjoy the incomparably lovely gardens at Sissinghurst
Or to Grand Central
And Zeppelins (and other flying machines) are a recurring theme, for instance, here


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