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Kepler, luckily for the reader, came from an era that antedates the death of literary style in scientific writing. You don’t have to familiarize yourself with a special vocabulary to understand what he’s saying.You do have to pay attention, though; the work may be poetic, but it’s a difficult poetry.
Kepler’s question, “Why do all snowflakes have six corners?
,” wouldn’t be answered until the development of X-ray crystallography in the twentieth century.
It’s precisely these poetically charged connections—snowflake, pomegranate, beehive—that Kepler hits on in his found poem. You can find notes of court poetry, and of Donne’s love of paradox: he presents the treatise as a “New Year’s Gift,” then with a wink says he gives a mere snowflake, a nothing, a (“nicht”) in German.
Kepler’s Snowflake, like Donne’s Flea, becomes something much bigger than itself by the time he’s done talking.
And the pleasure I took in that, while living through the early-twenty-first-century rise of the e-book, is important to document. Galileo’s books are taught in Italian high schools as masterpieces of style.
I suspect that thinking so much about snowflakes made me think of books themselves as snowflakes—physically beautiful, melting away. We know Aristotle from his students’ lecture notes; that is why he’s no good for pleasure reading.(His works of astronomy are harder to follow: too much math.) What works in our favor is that he’s writing, not to a fellow scientist, but to his patron at court, the delightfully named Lord Wacker von Wackenfels.Metaphor, Mother of Science Late in the treatise, Kepler ponders snowflakes by pondering the frosty window above a hot bath.This use of the asterisk is a masterstroke of ingenuity— takes shape very seriously, too.He was fond of geometry—he is known for discovering two solids, to this day called “Kepler’s polyhedra,” whose sides are made entirely of equilateral triangles. By Johannes Kepler (Author), Jacques Bromberg (Translator), and Guillermo Bleichmar (Foreword). His curiosity was far-ranging, and in 1609 he wrote a brief essay about, of all things, a snowflake. He was the first to prove, for example, that planets orbit the sun in ellipses, not perfect circles.(Kepler isn’t the only astronomer-mathematician with a poet’s instincts: Omar Khayyam is famous for his , quatrains he jotted down between spells in the observatory.) Kepler’s treatise even eschews easy closure, like a contemporary avant-garde poem.Spoiler alert: he never actually explains why a snowflake has six corners.In fact, at one point in his speculations, he actually concedes that he may be building his next few ideas on poppycock. After, that is, Kepler had calculated the elliptical orbits of the solar system.This “New Year’s Gift” marks a turning—a “volta,” to use poetry lingo—from the heavenly to the earthly, a poetic transition if ever there was one.