Tycho Brahe, Astronomical Giant, Odd Fellow

There's no figure in astronomical history more "colorful" than Tycho Brahe (Latin pronunciation tee-ko bra-hay, 1546-1601), a Danish nobleman with a fascination for things astronomical. The name of this site "Sky City" is taken from the name of Tycho's fabulous castle/astronomical observatory. His astronomical contributions were many. Prior to the invention of the telescope, Tycho and his assistants built astronomical instruments more than twice as accurate as anyone before him. In 1572 Tycho wrote a book about the appearance of a nova in Cassiopeia and proved that this new star was much further away than the Moon (Aristotle thought comets were atmospheric effects). A bright comet appeared in 1577 and Tycho, by comparing his own observations with those of other European astronomers showed that it was also further away than the Moon, further evidence that the heavens were not "perfect" and unchanging as Aristotle had held.

Tycho's measurements of the stellar parallax required by models of a moving Earth were the most accurate to date. Being unable to fathom the stars to be at sufficiently great distances to show such a small parallax, he incorrectly concluded that Copernicus was mistaken about the Earth moving and instead that it lay motionless at the center of the universe. Tycho proposed a modified Copernican cosmology in which all the planets except Earth orbited the Sun, the Sun in turn orbited the Earth. (Though wrong, Tycho's model was essentially equivalent mathematically to the Copernican model.)

 

The contrast between Tycho's grand accomplishments and the wonder and peculiarity of his personal life is striking. He inherited a fortune from his foster father, who had gained favor by saving danish King Frederick II from drowning. Part of Tycho's nose was cut off in a youthful sword duel with a fellow student about the solution to a mathematical problem, and to remedy Tycho had a replacement nose made out of gold and silver. His observatory was rife with wondrous elements, among dozens of rooms was a printing plant supplied with its own paper mill, an intercom system, flush toilets, an alchemical laboratory and a private jail. He mourned his pet elk who died after getting drunk with beer from a keg in one of the castle's upper rooms. Tycho's court jester "Jepp" was a dwarf whom Tycho believed clairvoyant, and he huddled beneath the dinner table partaking of occasional scraps of food flung to him by Tycho. The superlative astronomical instruments were all made to be taken apart and crated for transport in case Denmark proved eventually "unworthy" of Tycho, and indeed he did eventually move to Prague to continue his observations after funding waned in Denmark.

 

Brahe is thought to have died after contracting a urinary infection while attending a banquet hosted by a baron in Prague at which he drank extensively but felt that etiquette prevented him from leaving the table to relieve himself before the host left. It cannot be said that Tycho lacked a sense of protocol. Tycho is reported to have repeated over and over on his deathbed, "Let me not seem to have died in vain!" Kepler was to grant his dying wish by basing the three great laws of planetary motion on Tycho's superlative observations of the planet Mars.

 

A balanced history of this interesting character is found at http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Biographies/Brahe.html . Also, a longer excellent account is to be had in Timothy Ferris' book Coming of Age in the Milky Way, 1988 William Morrow and Co. For a fun account of Brahe's beloved pet moose, check out http://mentalfloss.com/article/50409/tycho-brahe-astronomer-drunken-moose .