Tycho Brahe (1546-1601)

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Tycho Brahe was born on 14 December, 1546, in Skane, Sweden. He was the eldest son of Otto Brahe and Beatte Bille, both from families in the high nobility of Denmark. He was brought up by his paternal uncle Jörgen Brahe and became his heir. He attended the universities of Copenhagen and Leipzig, and then traveled through the German region, studying further at the universities of Wittenberg, Rostock, and Basel. During this period his interest in alchemy and astronomy was aroused, and he bought several astronomical instruments..

In 1572 Tycho observed the new star in Cassiopeia and published a brief tract about it the following year. In 1574 he gave a course of lectures on astronomy at the University of Copenhagen. He was now convinced that the improvement of astronomy hinged on accurate observations. After another tour of Germany, where he visited astronomers, Tycho accepted an offer from the King Frederick II to fund an observatory. He was given the little island of Hven in the Sont near Copenhagen, and there he built his observatory, Uraniburg, which became the finest observatory in Europe.

Tycho designed and built new instruments, calibrated them, and instituted nightly observations. He also ran his own printing press. The observatory was visited by many scholars, and Tycho trained a generation of young astronomers there in the art of observing. After a falling out with King Christian IV, Tycho packed up his instruments and books in 1597 and left Denmark. After traveling several years, he settled in Prague in 1599 as the Imperial Mathematician at the court of Emperor Rudolph II. He died there in 1601. His instruments were stored and eventually lost.

Tycho's major works include De Nova et Nullius Aevi Memoria Prius Visa Stella ("On the New and Never Previously Seen Star) (Copenhagen, 1573); De Mundi Aetherei Recentioribus Phaenomenis ("Concerning the New Phenomena in the Ethereal World) (Uraniburg, 1588); Astronomiae Instauratae Mechanica ("Instruments for the Restored Astronomy") (Wandsbeck, 1598; English tr. Copenhagen, 1946); Astronomiae Instauratae Progymnasmata ("Introductory Exercises Toward a Restored Astronomy") (Prague 1602). His observations were not published during his lifetime. Johannes Kepler used them but they remained the property of his heirs. Several copies in manuscript circulated in Europe for many years, and a very faulty version was printed in 1666. At Prague, Tycho hired Johannes Kepler as an assistant to calculate planetary orbits from his observations. Kepler published the Tabulae Rudolphina in 1627. Because of Tycho's accurate observations and Kepler's elliptical astronomy, these tables were much more accurate than any previous tables.

Tycho Brahe's contributions to astronomy were enormous. He not only designed and built instruments, he also calibrated them and checked their accuracy periodically. He thus revolutionized astronomical instrumentation. He also changed observational practice profoundly. Whereas earlier astronomers had been content to observe the positions of planets and the Moon at certain important points of their orbits (e.g., opposition, quadrature, station), Tycho and his cast of assistants observed these bodies throughout their orbits. As a result, a number of orbital anomalies never before noticed were made explicit by Tycho. Without these complete series of observations of unprecedented accuracy, Kepler could not have discovered that planets move in elliptical orbits. Tycho was also the first astronomer to make corrections for atmospheric refraction. In general, whereas previous astronomers made observations accurate to perhaps 15 arc minutes, those of Tycho were accurate to perhaps 2 arc minutes, and it has been shown that his best observations were accurate to about half an arc minute.

Tycho's observations of the new star of 1572 and comet of 1577, and his publications on these phenomena, were instrumental in establishing the fact that these bodies were above the Moon and that therefore the heavens were not immutable as Aristotle had argued and philosophers still believed. The heavens were changeable and therefore the Aristotelian division between the heavenly and earthly regions came under attack (see, for instance, Galileo's Dialogue) and was eventually dropped. Further, if comets were in the heavens, they moved through the heavens. Up to now it had been believed that planets were carried on material spheres (spherical shells) that fit tightly around each other. Tycho's observations showed that this arrangement was impossible because comets moved through these spheres. Celestial spheres faded out of existence between 1575 and 1625.

Bibliography

1. Joseph Ashbrook, "Tycho Brahe's Nose," Sky and Telescope, 29, no. 6 (1965):353, 358

2. Ann Blair, "Tycho Brahe's Critique of Copernicus and the Copernican System," Journal for the History of Ideas, 51 (1990): 355-77.

5. John Christianson, "The Celestial Palace of Tycho Brahe," Scientific American, 204, no. 2 (1961):118-128

3.  J. L. E. Dreyer, Tycho Brahe: A Picture of Scientific Life and Work in the Sixteenth Century (Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1890; 2d ed. New York: Dover, 1963).

4. Tychonis Brahe Dani Opera omnia, ed. J. L. E. Dreyer, 15 vols. (Copenhagen 1913-1929; reprinted Amsterdam: Swets & Zeitlinger, 1972).

6. Charles D. Humberd, "Tycho Brahe's Island," Popular Astronomy, 45 (1937):118-125

7. C. Doris Hellman, "Was Tycho Brahe as Influential as He Thought?" British Journal for the History of Science, 1 (1963):295-324

8. Victor E. Thoren, The Lord of Uraniborg: A Biography of Tycho Brahe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).