History and Biography of Astronomers: Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Tycho Brahe

About the history and biography of astronomers Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Tycho Brahe the development of modern astronomy.

The Astronomers

No one knows who the 1st astronomer was but he probably had the job of making a calendar that could be used to predict the seasons, when to plant, when to expect the annual flood. Later on he might have devised theories explaining how the sun moves.

The ancient Greeks produced a few accomplishments in astronomy although this was not one of their main interests. Anaximander (611-546 B.C.) explained the movements of the sun, moon, and planets by stating that all heavenly bodies were in the shape of wheels. Eudoxus of Cnidus (408-355 B.C.) modified this to have the planets move in concentric spheres, which was an idea that stuck around a long time. The philosopher Socrates (470-399 B.C.) had a misanthropic opinion--astronomers were good only for making calendars.

The 1st astronomer in modern terms, a collector and analyzer of data, was Hipparchus (c. 150 B.C.), who mapped the location of 1,080 stars and also classified them according to brightness in 6 categories. Hipparchus' achievement would have been lost but for Ptolemy, who worked in Alexandria from 127 to 141 A.D. Ptolemy put the data in the Almagest and used it to support the earth as the center of the solar system.

For 1,400 years Ptolemy's system dominated thought. It satisfied religious dogma--the earth and on it man, God's child, were the center of everything. It took a priest to upset this applecart. The Pole, Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), was orphaned at 10. His uncle, a bishop, raised him in the Church. Although a sideline, astronomy occupied much of his time despite the turmoil caused by the Reformation then taking place. Copernicus was able to publish 3 books on astronomy. The last, and most important, was released at his death. In it Copernicus proposed that the sun was the center of the solar system.

Copernicus' theory was not accepted readily. Not only did it dispose of man as the center of the universe, it was not much simpler than Ptolemy's theory. It took the work of an astronomer who could not accept Copernicus' theory as true to lay the groundwork for its acceptance. Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) was arrogant, assertive, and able. As a student he argued vehemently with another over a problem in mathematics. In the resulting duel, Tycho's swordsmanship was not equal to his mathematics and he suffered the embarrassment of losing the tip of his nose. He had a replacement made of gold but things were not the same.

As premier astronomer, Tycho was able to bargain for and get the Isle of Hveen, near Copenhagen, to use as an observatory. In this Tycho installed the most accurate instruments of the time and set out to collect the most exact data ever recorded. After his patron, King Frederick II, died, Tycho was forced out by envious lords. He landed in Prague in 1597. Luckily for astronomy, his new assistant was a man named Kepler.

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