Heartwood 1:14 – Kepler’s Snowflake

The Six-Cornered Snowflake: a New Year’s Gift
by Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)
150 pgs.  Paul Dry Books, 2010.
Originally pub 1611.  Trans. by Jacques Bromberg.

Johannes Kepler is best known for unveiling the elliptical orbits of the planets and other laws of planetary motion. But this year marks the 400th anniversary of a playful and astonishing little book he wrote as a New Year’s gift for a philosopher friend who was much taken with the concept of nothing. In his quest to discover the gift that comes closest to nothing, Kepler’s manic, polymathic mind leaps across the world of classical and scientific literature while considering the gift potential of atoms, sand, wind, sparks and smoke. As he walked across the Charles Bridge in Prague, mulling over his need for a gift, Kepler noticed snowflakes landing on the fabric of his coat, all of them with six corners. “By Hercules!” he writes of the evanescent crystals, “Here, indeed, was a most desirable New Year’s gift for the lover of Nothing, and one worthy as well of a mathematician … since it descends from the sky and bears a likeness to the stars.”

In his gift book, Kepler zealously probes what could be the cause of this six-fold symmetry, his restless mind turning to the beehive, Plato’s polyhedra, frost patterns on glass, the tightly packed seeds of the pomegranate, and the formation of crystals in minerals. In this whimsical and imaginative diversion from his astronomical duties, Kepler raised questions that took three centuries to be answered and set the stage for the specialization that later came to be called crystallography.

The Paul Dry edition is an attractive little book that has the Latin text along with Kepler’s marginal notes on pages facing the translation. It also includes a couple of introductory essays, line drawings, and a 20th Century poem sequence by John Frederick Nims inspired by Kepler’s work. This brief, inquisitive book is a fascinating read and would make a fine gift for the Renaissance man or woman on your list.

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