Astronomer Biography Tycho Brahe

About the astronomer Tycho Brahe, history and biography of the man who discovered the necessity for systematic observations.



(1546-1601, Denmark)

Major Discovery: That astronomical observations must be precise.

Means of Observation: Naked eye aided by the best nonlens instruments of his time.

His Story: While Tycho was still in his cradle, his uncle, who was childless, kidnapped him from his father's castle. He was raised in an extravagant style, even for a Danish nobleman, and soon became an irascible eccentric. Although his uncle wanted him to become a great statesman, Tycho was much more interested in the precise world of mathematics. While he was a student, he fought a duel, over a mathematical problem, it is said, and lost part of his nose. He replaced it with one made of gold and silver, which he frequently polished with a compound he always carried with him in a snuffbox.

At the end of his first year at the University of Copenhagen, Tycho witnessed a partial eclipse of the sun. Characteristically, he was not impressed by the eclipse itself, but he thought it "divine" that the eclipse had been precisely forecast. He resolved to become the best astronomer in the world. When Tycho's uncle hired a tutor to make sure he studied statecraft instead of astronomy, Tycho hid under his covers with his globe and books and studied while the tutor slept.

After making the rounds of some of the best universities in Europe, Tycho announced that his education was complete and returned to Denmark to devote himself to the heavens. His tutor had given up trying to make him a statesman, and his uncle had died of pneumonia after jumping from a bridge to save King Frederick II of Denmark.

On the night of Nov. 11, 1572, Tycho noticed a star in the sky where none had been before. In a few days all Europe focused on the bright dot of light. The Ptolemaic theory that the earth was the center of the universe was accepted throughout the Christian world as an act of faith. New stars were impossible; all change and decay were limited to the region closest to the earth. Therefore, Tycho's new light must be a tailless comet or some other lesser heavenly body. However, everyone agreed that the new body would answer the question itself. If it moved in relation to the other stars, it was not a star; if it remained stationary, it was. The best astronomers of Europe watched with the best instruments they had, but their findings were inconclusive. Tycho, on the other hand, was loaded for bear. He had just completed an immense sextant with arms 5 1/2 ft. long. He watched and recorded. There was no movement. He had discovered a new star.

For the rest of his life, Tycho observed the sky systematically with the best instruments his great wealth could buy. As royal astronomer for the Danish court, he built the world's first observatory on an island near Copenhagen and named it Uranienborg ("Castle of the Heavens"). Everything of import that he saw, he painstakingly recorded. He guarded his data jealously, but when he died, his records passed into the hands of his humble assistant, Johannes Kepler. Tycho's precise measurements, particularly those of the path of the planet Mars, enabled Kepler to prove that the planets revolve in elliptical orbits, not in exact circles as astronomers had believed for some 2,000 years.

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