Two Life Lessons From Failure of Johannes Kepler

I had one of the most deeply reflective moments about life in college in, of all places, math class, from a professor who shared a story about a failure of Johannes Kepler before he discovered that the planets orbit the sun in an elliptical curve.

Back in Kepler’s days, scientists were aware of only six planets.  Kepler began the quest for discovering how the planets are aligned with the question, ‘Why are there six planets?”  It then occurred to him that in mathematics, there is something called the Platonic solids which have long interested mathematicians because of its beauty and symmetry.  It is relatively easy to prove that there are, and can only be, five Platonic solids because these solids must meet specific conditions.

Kepler then reasoned that God is perfect, God created the planets, and Platonic solids are perfect, so the answer must lie in the Platonic solids.  The solution he came up with was rather brilliant.  Kepler proposed that the distance relationships between the six planets could be understood in terms of the five Platonic solids.  He illustrated a model in which one Platonic solid fits between each pair of planetary spheres.

Kepler postulated that the ratio of the sizes of Platonic solids which made this work also defined the distance between the planets.  It turns out that he was extremely close, apparently to couple decimal points, but when Kepler got access to a very powerful telescope, he realized his numbers were off.  He abandoned this theory, and it took him another decade to come up with the correct answer.

As Professor Reeder pointed out, there are several morales to the story.

We have all been told the cliché at some point in our lives that “there are no stupid questions,” but, as Kepler showed, there are wrong ones.  It was nonsensical for Kepler to ask why there are six planets, because we now know that there are, in fact, more than six planets.  The brilliant answer Kepler came up with was wholly off base because the question he asked to begin the inquiry was the wrong question to be asking in the first place.

Such misconception isn’t limited to history.  Even in the modern era, very smart people are unable to ask the right questions, and as a result, leads the debate astray.  In my profession, there are those who are unable to distinguish the “should” from the “could”, even though lawyers, more than any others, should understand the difference.

And for decades, the field of education failed to ask the pertinent questions like  “Are our schools failing?,” “How do we determine ‘failing’?,” “What causes ‘failing’?,” “What are the most effective methods of teaching?,” ‘How do we measure improvement?” or “How do cultural norms affect student performance?”   Instead, the only question being asked was  “How much money to whom?”, thereby throwing good money after bad.

Ever since being told Kepler’s story, I’ve tried to focus on not so much finding the answers, but on asking the rights questions.  But what Kepler’s experience teaches us is that there are times when we are universally asking questions without doubting their rationale that may, with time and upon further knowledge, turn out to make very little sense.  Professor Reeder thought that question was going to be the one we currently believe to be deeply philosophical and religious, “Why are we here?”  I don’t share in his skepticism towards religion, but I certainly see his point.

There is nothing we can do about asking the wrong questions when we don’t have enough knowledge to ask the right ones.  But the first important lesson of Kepler is that just because we can’t know for sure that we’re on the right path to discovery doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be taking the journey in the first place.  There is value in seeking the goal, even if ultimately the goal isn’t reached.

Kepler, though, isn’t being remembered in science and history as a guy that tried really hard to find the way the planets orbited the sun.  He did ultimately achieve his goal, and the second, perhaps more significant lesson, is in how he reached the right result despite being so wrong. Yes, Kepler was ingenious in coming up with the Platonic solid theory in the first place, but what set him apart in the history of science was his ability to overcome his own brilliance.

Each one of us is naturally biased towards our own ideas.  It’s hard enough to concede our own idea after someone else points out the flaw; it’s even more difficult to self-critique and be self-objective.  But Kepler showed that a real breakthrough can only occur when you’re open to the possibility that you may be wrong.  That’s an important lesson for all of us, most of all me.


2 Responses to “Two Life Lessons From Failure of Johannes Kepler”

  1. 1 Jay the Elitist February 19, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    Damn, I thought you were going to talk about how you’re wrong in life, but alas, you just mentioned yourself at the very end and no elaboration.

    • 2 joesas February 20, 2013 at 7:18 am

      Jay the Elitist,

      You forget that I’m always right and that I love myself for it, so there is no need for me to talk about how I’m wrong in life (or in anything, for that matter). I do mention myself at the end, but I emphasize that I only say I need to be open to the possibility that I could be wrong. After that window of opportunity is open, it will almost instantaneously be shut. You, on the other hand, need to continue to keep that window wide open to let the right air in…

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