To Navigate The Seas Of The Sun – What Kepler’s Letter To Galileo Can Tell Us About Reading The Past


I’ve had this quote upon my mind since this morning. It’s from a letter written by Kepler to Galileo in April of 1610:

“There will certainly be no lack of human pioneers when we have mastered the art of flight. Who would have thought that navigation across the vast ocean is less dangerous and quieter than in the narrow, threatening gulfs of the Adriatic, or the Baltic, or the British straits? Let us create vessels and sails adjusted to the heavenly ether, and there will be plenty of people unafraid of the empty wastes. In the meantime, we shall prepare, for the brave sky-travellers, maps of the celestial bodies – I shall do it for the moon, you Galileo, for Jupiter.”

Now, usually it’s quoted with a certain sense of the fantastical in mind. A bit of a “gee wizz, look at what they thought things’d be like, way back in the early days of modern ‘science’ at the tail end of the Renaissance”, in somewhere between the mocking tones we more usually reserve for films from the 1980s/early 1990s predicting jetpacks for personal use by The Current Year, and the frank derision often directed at some otherwise-eminent scientist who’s declared they’re [still] religious … or that they’re going off to hunt the Loch Ness Monster. In space, potentially. But I digress. [the less defensible version of all of the above features Engineers With Opinions deciding that they’re not just theologians, but literalists, and supporting *literal* ‘theme park versions of history’ featuring Noah’s Ark and dinosaur-riding humans]

The reason it’s been on my mind, is threefold.

First, and perhaps most importantly, simple Rule of Cool. Space Ships with Aetheric Sails. I mean c’mon – that’s *excellent* !
But second, because it turns out there’s actually a bit of a debate going on as to *just how serious* Kepler was in an array of his letter-writing, an especially when it was directed towards Galileo.

And that’s really quite important, I feel – because I rather somewhat suspect that strewn *throughout* the history of human intellectual achievement, theology etc. (which is, strictly speaking, the study of Somebody Else’s intellectual achievement, if you get my drift), are probably *all manner* of jokes, insults, injokes, idioms, and other meant-less-than-entirely-seriously/literally sentiments and statements that … have been taken as earnest expressions of genuine belief.

Either because they line up with what somebody later on and down the track wanted to think/say/fund-a-themepark-based-around *anyway* … or because, as a specific subset of “our ancestors were smart enough to write metaphorically, we’re dumb enough to insist upon taking it all literally” – we occasionally seem to somehow forget that the Sense of Humour is not *also* merely a post-Renaissance invention. (although, to be sure, it can require a bit of a … special sense of humour to prima-facie crack up at some pre-modern jokes – but that is another topic for another time)

The third reason, is that in amidst all the focus upon LITERAL SPACE-SHIPS at the center of the quote, it’s kinda easy to lose sight of all of the *other* things going on in there that *actually did*, broadly speaking, come to pass. Lunar cartography *did* become a thing [Jupiterian cartography … not quite so much, due to a lack of a surface – so it’s really more a matter of *meteorology*, featuring some incredibly persistent super-storms visible from across the gulf of space]. We’ve certainly had many *many* “pioneers” who’ve been incredibly eager to get up there into the void (even, potentially, some keen to carry out colonization activity). Indeed, the term “spaceship” is now somewhat frequently used – shorn of its more overtly ‘nautical’ connotations. Except when we’re talking about, say, Solar Sails – or that the ‘sailing’ is being done by Astronauts [Astro-Nauts … see? Sailors of the Sea of Stars – a Very Indo-European Concept, also, for reasons I should get on with writing a series of articles about].

And once again, I think that’s rather heavily instructive. Not just in terms of how it’s easy to see something that’s clearly wrong (but *impressively* wrong! *excellently* wrong! *beautifully* in error, in fact!) in some archaic text … and then not, as a fairly directly attributable result, see all the stuff it almost directly got *right* alongside it – but to go further, and then *completely miss* how even the elements that are rather significantly *literally* factually askew, are nevertheless important and *resoundingly resonant* guides for how we’ve *actually* come to think about something and to meaningfully approach it much later in history. The points and the periods wherein “we should know better” have overtly turned out to very much be conceptually based upon the past – and perhaps, just perhaps. demonstrating that once upon a time, we *did* know better, in somewhat different ways, as well [c.f also, I suspect, Stephen Hawking drawing upon the ‘Conquistador’ themes of some of Earth’s own history about the same period that Kepler was corresponding with Galileo, when sketching out why he thought that the existence of Aliens might *really* not be a Good Thing from the perspective of us down here amongst the ‘groundlings’ of this island Earth]

(As a further thought, when it comes to people scoffing at some of the inaccuracies and inadequacies of older modelings and (mis)understandings of some features of the universe … I mean, what did you expect. That men operating with a *decidedly* inferior informational foundation upon which to *make* any forms of inference or imaginative discovery nor speculation would therefore get *exactly and precisely* the same inductions out of all of it that a fifteen year old today armed with Wikipedia might manage were he so inclined to do so? We *can* judge the Great Minds of yesteryear by the standards of today – but somewhat ‘on their own terms’; that is to say, via their processes, their energies, their efforts, if not always their ultimate conclusions. And generally speaking, I have almost invariably found it the case that they were the far greater than ours *precisely because* they managed to have wrought so much more, even if somewhat questionable, with so much more little or that was *already* erroneous, to begin with)

All up, it’s a *fantastically* cool quote – there’s no doubt, to my mind anyway, as to that. But not just because both a much younger me – and, for that matter, a more contemporarily aged me – finds the notion of ships sailing the Sea of Stars – and I mean *literally* [or, at least, literary-ily] *sailing* them, here – to be such an excellent concept.

But also, because it directly illustrates some important and oft-neglected considerations for how we must think, when we are seeking to ‘engage’ meaningfully with the manuscripts of the (older, or especially ancient) past.

One of which, I do resolutely believe, is to always *always* have at the ready, a certain boundless sense of *Wonder*.

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