Pioneer Astronomer Faked Orbit Theory, Scholar Says

New York Times / Orlando Sentinel
January 23, 1990



Johannes Kepler, the father of modern astronomy, fabricated data in presenting his theory of how the planets move around the sun, apparently to bolster acceptance of the insight by skeptics, a scholar has found.

The scholar, William H. Donahue, said the evidence of Kepler's scientific fakery is in an elaborate chart he presented to support his theory.

Kepler showed that planets move in elliptical orbits, not circles as Copernicus suggested.

In a book, Kepler said it was confirmed by independent calculations of the planets' positions. In fact, Donahue says, Kepler derived the data by calculations based on the theory itself.

Kepler anticipated stiff criticism of his theory. From antiquity, the circle had been considered the only geometrical shape perfect enough to describe the movement of heavenly bodies.

Done in 1609, Kepler's fakery is one of the earliest known examples of the use of false data by a giant of modern science.

Donahue, a science historian, turned up the falsified data while translating Kepler's master work, Astronomia Nova, or The New Astronomy, into English.

Donahue, who lives in Sante Fe, N.M., described what he learned in a recent issue of The Journal of the History of Astronomy.

The fabricated data appear in calculated positions for the planet Mars, which Kepler used as a case study for all planetary motion. Kepler claimed the calculations gave his elliptical theory an independent check. But in fact they did nothing of the kind.

''He fudged things,'' Donahue said, adding that Kepler was never challenged by a contemporary.

Experts, nearly unanimous in defending the great astronomer, say Kepler's act may be less reprehensible than it seems.

''Kepler was one of the people who invented modern science,'' said Walter W. Stewart, a researcher with the National Institutes of Health who is helping Congress investigate cases of scientific fraud. ''It's not clear his standards were the same as ours.''

Dr. Owen Gingerich, a professor of astronomy and science history at the center for astrophysics of Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution in Cambridge, Mass., said Kepler's act, in its day, may simply have been a legitimate rhetorical flourish meant to convince recalcitrant colleagues of the correctness of his insight.

''Normally one would not expect there to be a rhetoric of science, or a political part of the presentation,'' Gingerich said. ''But in reality that element is very important.''



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