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It’s a small book, just bigger than the Apple Magic Trackpad by my wrist.The cover is glossy, done in winter colors: blue, white, gray; the paper is thick and high quality, the font is an easy-to-read variant of Garamond, and there are several pages of line drawings: necessary, in my opinion, to follow some of the geometry digressions. Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) wrote some of the foundational works of modern astronomy.
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.
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.
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.(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.They have added, in an appendix, John Frederick Nims’s 1990 pattern poem of the same name, a multi-part riff on the text and on Kepler himself.Nims shapes his stanzas as six-cornered snowflakes, an asterisk at every point.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.Aristotle’s finished works, lost to posterity, were actually dialogues, praised by Cicero for their literary style.We have far fewer examples of major scientists presenting their own ideas in accessible form. Many others write for each other, with “science reporters” and “popularizers” serving as intermediaries for the general reader.Imagine: the tired astronomer, eyes bloodshot, fingers ink-stained (Kepler did all his own calculations), walks out on a Prague bridge and notices the snowflakes landing on him, his celestial mind quickened by this symmetry on his sleeve.The Only Poetic Questions are Questions of Form The editors of the book seem to have sensed this poetic quality.