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Tycho Brahe

On the Eccentric Danish Astronomer Who Described the Universe Without a Telescope


Tycho Brahe made the most accurate observations of the universe, the stars and, especially, the Solar System well before the telescope was invented.

The beauty and the metaphor of the astrolabe reminds us that to know the universe is to know ourselves, and that such a search is always reflexive. One of the most unique characters to have participated in this exploration (one still just beginning) was Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), A Danish astronomer, he made exact measurements of the universe years before Galileo Galilei invented his telescope. On the Swedish island of Ven, Brahe created one of the first institutions of science to use an empirical research model in Europe. It was an subterranean observatory called Stjärneborg and housed a botanical garden in the purest of Renaissance styles (and one intended as a replica of the Garden of Eden).

Tycho Observatory

On August 21, 1560, a solar eclipse was to change Brahe’s life. Then a student of philosophy and rhetoric at the University of Copenhagen, the event lead to a deep interest in the sky and the celestial bodies found there. From a wealthy family, the young man continued his studies in science, art, and law at Rostock, Leipzig, and Basel, but he never stopped reading (sometimes even without permission) books on astronomy. His studies quickly showed him that all of the measurements of the skies which then existed had been inexact, and he began to develop new methods and instruments to study both planets and stars.

Tycho also conducted studies in alchemy (providing one possible explanation for the exhorbitant quantity of gold discovered in his remains). Years later, in 1570, another heavenly portent showed him his way forward: a bright star that simply hadn’t been there before. News of the appearance of this star, in the Cassiopeia constellation, spread quickly because, at the time, the celestial vault was considered a divine space in which change couldn’t occur. The astronomer observed the star regularly until it vanished, a year later, as though it had been a ghost. Reports of the star, its appearance, and disappearance were related in Brahe’s book De Nova Stella, which made him famous throughout Europe.

From that moment, Brahe’s fame preceded his multiple investigations in Europe, until at some point the Danish king persuaded him to return to Denmark and granted him some land, which incuded the island of Ven. This was to become his private observatory and the place where he would carry out the ambitious research program commissioned by the Danish Crown.

Over time, Brahe began to have differences of opinion with the king. Eventually, these differences led him to leave Denmark for Prague. Here, he was appointed Royal Mathematician to the court of Emperor Rudolph II (who offered him residence at the Castle at Benatky). Brahe brought with him his printing press and all of his scientific instruments as to continue his studies in his new home, assisted by no less than a young Johannes Kepler. After his death, Kepler compiled the astronomer’s final studies and delineated his conclusions. This took knowledge of the Solar System to another level entirely. Brahe perfectly measured the orbit of Mars and went on to note the positions of more than 777 stars.

Brahe’s life was picturesque, and he earned a reputation as an eccentric. Beginning with his impressive wealth (he’s said to have owned a full 1% of Denmark), he married the daughter of a peasant (shocking his family and friends) and he kept a pet moose. Accompanied by a dwarf named Jepp, the scientist claimed this friend was clairvoyant. Brahe also wore a nose-shaped prosthesis for most of his life, having lost his own nose in a duel during his student years in Rostock.

Even today, Brahe inspires for good reason; for his tremendous passions. After all, the universe itself had called out to him, from a time when he’d been very young and, rather fortunately, he chose to listen.

Tycho Portrait


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