I think I will safely eschew any controversy in this post by stating that there are more songs about love than about science. It is therefore nice to be able to add the fairly recent opera/oratorio “Kepler”, composed by Philip Glass, to that second select list. I have to admit that I have been listening to it almost obsessively in the last few weeks. Indeed, how often does one hear an enthusiastic chorus singing with gusto such rousing lines as

Numerus, quantitas et motus orbium!

Number, quantity and circular motion!

or declaiming the basis of the scientific method

entwerfen wir uns
in den Hypothesen
ein Bild
von der Natur der Dinge.
Dann konstruieren wir,
den Calculus,
die Weise der Berechnung.
So demonstrieren wir
In Folge die Bewegungen.
Und schliesslich pruefen wir,
den Weg zurueckverfolgend,
die wahren Regeln
unserer Rechnung

At first
We sketch
[See the first comment below for this change]
With hypotheses
An image
Of the nature of things.
Then we construct,
The calculus,
The way of computing.
Thus we demonstrate
The motions.
Lastly, we check
By retracing the path
[Strangely this was not translated in the original libretto, see the 6th comment]
The true rules
Of our calculation.

These quotes are in Latin and German, since P. Glass, as he often does, uses the original language for his texts, and in that case most of the libretto (written by Martina Winkel) is taken literally from Kepler’s own writings, interspersed with bits of German baroque poetry to put him in the context of his time and place.

[I’ve changed a bit the German translation in the second case from what is in the Libretto, where some constructions like “We place us in the hypotheses” seemed a bit strange; any better attemps at translating the German are welcome in the comments!] I just changed this piece following a suggestion from the first commenter below, and added the missing third-before-last line, as suggested by another commenter

While waiting for the DVD, I had a look at Youtube; and — marvel! — some ingenious soul has put there the full recording of the opera, presumably as it appeared on Austrian television some time in 2009 or 2010. As I’m not sure about the legality of this, I’ll abstain from putting a link, but searching “Kepler Glass” on the site will lead you to it quite quickly. (There are two separate movies for the two acts; the first quote above is located around 12:50 mn in the first act, and the second appears around 39:10). (5.2.2011: it seems that these have now been removed from Youtube, which is probably not surprising; fortunately, the DVD will come out in late February.)

(Note: I am aware that in certain rarefied circles, the music of Philip Glass is considered to be just one step above elevator music, but I am personally completely philistinate in that respect, and will not countenance comments along these lines…)

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I am a professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich since 2008.

7 thoughts on “Kepler”

  1. Follwing your request, a remark on the translation
    (German is my native language, my English is, well, you will see).

    First, I prefer your translation over the other one you mentioned. Still, I belive both slightly alter the meaning [which, as I find out trying to suggest something else, might or might not be inevitable]:

    ‘ein Bild entwerfen’ means ‘to sketch/draft an image/picture’. Used both literaly and figuratively, where in the figurative sense the sketchiness is less pronouced than in the literal sense and there also make/create in stead of sketch/draft seems fine (except I am not sure the result is proper English).
    The noun ‘Entwurf’ means ‘draft’.

    The main difference in meaning to me is that the German version means to me that in (or via) the hypotheses the image is drafted/created, rather then that there is a pre-existing image that can be used.

    So, if this still makes sense in English, my suggestion would be to simply replace ‘put’ by ‘draft’, ‘sketch’ or ‘create’. If this does not work well together with ‘in the hypotheses’ and would requirer to change this to, say, ‘via the hypotheses’ then perhaps it is best to accept the slight change in meaning.

    Sorry for the longwinded comment; my original plan was to simply suggest the change of ‘put’ but then thinking about it I started to feel it might not be so simple.

  2. Thanks! Since the text is Kepler’s own, I find it quite important to get a precise idea of the exact shade of meaning. I’ve just changed the translation of these lines based on your suggestion.

  3. Your “about science” link is broken, so I don’t know which example of science songs you were going to cite.

    Perhaps TMBG’s “Here Comes Science”…? That’s my favorite collection of songs about science. I also like the “Symphony of Science” website. They did a good job of putting together inspiring and poetic discussion of science (though one can argue that auto-tuned stuff isn’t really listenable music).

  4. “We propose to ourselves – in the hypotheses – a picture of the nature of things.”?

    I am not a native German speaker, but this is how I would interpret things.

  5. Did you leave out the third from last line “den Weg zurueckverfolgend,” on purpose (for lack of good translation)?

    I don’t quite feel enough at home with the English language to be sure that the follwing is a ‘worthy’ translation

    backtracking the path

    seems to be at least a possible one.

  6. Thanks, I just forgot it! It’s also left untranslated in the libretto, strangely enough. I’ll put in

    retracing the path

    which seems close to what you suggest.

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