Kepler: Mystic Astronomer

I had the good fortune of seeing “The Kepler Story” yesterday at the Morrison Planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences. This 60-minute live, one-man theatre performance about the 17th century German astronomer Johannes Kepler takes place under the planetarium dome. Nina Wise, the playwright and director, said in her introduction to the show that this is (to her knowledge) the first live theatre production that takes place in a planetarium. Since I used to work in planetariums, I appreciate the unique technical challenges posed by producing a live show in a dome theatre.

I was impressed with how the use of full-dome visuals complemented the live performance, and also how history of science was interwoven with scientific information via storytelling. For example, early in the performance Kepler (played by actor Norbert Weisser) is walking through a street and describes the snowflakes falling on his head. As he speaks, points of light representing snowflakes begin to “fall” on the screen of the dome. When Kepler talks about noticing the six-point structure of the snowflakes, the points of light on the dome become larger and more distinct as a variety of six-sided snowflakes. The effect was that I felt as though I was walking with Kepler under the night sky and observing with him the nature of the snowflakes. Congratulations to the Morrison Planetarium visualization experts for pulling this off.

But this show is notable not only for the venue and special effects, but also because it tackles the subject of integration of scientific knowledge and spiritual beliefs. Although many astronomers today choose to downplay Kepler’s mystical side, the truth is that he was an individual who had a very strong spiritual connection to the cosmos. During the snowflake scene, Kepler did not stop at simply observing the structure of the snowflakes. He also began to muse on how this structure is an example of the harmonious order of the Universe as created by God.

Although this idea may seem fairly tame to those who are immersed in spirituality, highlighting the religious beliefs of a respected scientist in relation to the creation of the Universe brushes up against the current intelligent design controversy which many in the modern scientific establishment abhor. I found it interesting to note that (unless memory fails me) the word “astrologer” was not used once during the performance, although the historical Kepler was an astrologer as well as an astronomer. In fact, during that point in European history, astrology and astronomy were more tightly linked than were astronomy and physics.

But this is 2013, and this show addresses the growing interest in integrating science and spirituality. The promotional material for the show advertises that the performance “has the capacity to elicit moments of transcendence”. For me, the snowflake scene delivered on that promise. As someone who values scientific fact but also seeks my own spiritual connection to the cosmos, this show was an inspiring blending of the two.




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