In the history of science, scholars who end up on the wrong side of history tend to get either forgotten and/or vilified. What do I mean by ‘end up on the wrong side of history’? This refers to scholars who defend a theory that in the end turns out to be wrong against one that in the end turns out to be right. My very first history of science post on this blog was about just such a figure, Christoph Clavius, who gets mocked by many as the last Ptolemaic dinosaur in the astronomy/cosmology debate at the beginning of the seventeenth century. In fact there is much to praise about Clavius, as I tried to make clear in my post and he made many positive contributions to the evolution of the mathematical sciences. Another man, who ended up on the wrong side of history in the same period is the Danish astronomer, Christen Sørensen, better known, if at all, by the name Longomontanus, the Latinised toponym based on Lomborg, the Jutland village where he was born on 4 October 1562 the son of a poor labourer, who died when he was only eight years old.
Tycho Brahe backed the wrong astronomical theory in this period, a theory that is generally named after him although several people seem to have devised it independently of each other in the closing quarter of the sixteenth century. However, Tycho has not been forgotten because he delivered the new data with which Johannes Kepler created his elliptical model of the solar system. However, what people tend to ignore is that Tycho did not produce that data single-handedly, far from it.
The island of Hven, Tycho’s fiefdom, was a large-scale research institute with two observatories, an alchemy laboratory, a paper mill and a printing workshop.
This enterprise was staffed by a veritable army of servants, technicians and research assistant with Tycho as the managing director and head of research.
Over the years the data that would prove so crucial to Kepler’s endeavours was collected, recorded and analysed by a long list of astronomical research assistants; by far and away the most important of those astronomical research assistants was Christen Sørensen called Longomontanus, who also inherited Tycho’s intellectual mantle and continued to defend his system into the seventeenth century until his death in 1647.
Christen Sørensen came from a very poor background so acquiring an education proved more than somewhat difficult. After the death of his father he was taken into care by an uncle who sent him to the village school in Lemvig. However, after three years his mother took him back to work on the farm; she only allowed him to study with the village pastor during the winter months. In 1577 he ran away to Viborg, where he studied at the cathedral school, supporting himself by working as a labourer. This arrangement meant that he only entered the university in Copenhagen in 1588, but with a good academic reputation. It was here at the university that he acquired his toponym, Longomontanus. In 1589 his professor recommended him to Tycho Brahe and he entered into service on the island of Hven.
He was probably instructed in Tycho’s methods by Elias Olsen Morsing, who served Tycho from 1583 to 1590, and Peter Jacobsen Flemløse, who served from 1577-1588 but stayed in working contact for several years more and became a good friend of Longomontanus. Longomontanus proved to be an excellent observer and spent his first three years working on Tycho’s star catalogue.
Later he took on a wider range of responsibilities. In 1597, Tycho having clashed with the new king, the entire research institute prepared to leave Hven. Longomontanus was put in charge of the attempt to bring Tycho’s star catalogue up from 777 stars to 1,000. When Tycho left Copenhagen, destination unknown, Longomontanus asked for and received his discharge from Tycho’s service.
While Tycho wandered around Europe trying to find a new home for his observatory, Longomontanus also wandered around Europe attending various universities–Breslau, Leipzig and Rostock–and trying to find a new patron. He graduated MA in Rostock. During their respective wanderings, Tycho’s and Longomontanus’ paths crossed several times and the corresponded frequently, Tycho always urging Longomontanus to re-enter his service. In January 1600 Longomontanus finally succumbed and joined Tycho in his new quarters in Prague, where Johannes Kepler would soon join the party.
When Kepler became part of Tycho’s astronomical circus in Prague, Longomontanus the senior assistant was working on the reduction of the orbit of Mars. Tycho took him off this project putting him instead onto the orbit of the Moon and giving Mars to Kepler, a move that would prove history making. As should be well known, Kepler battled many years with the orbit of Mars finally determining that it was an ellipse thereby laying the foundation stone for his elliptical astronomy. The results of his battle were published in 1609, together with his first two laws of planetary motion, in his Astronomia nova.
Meanwhile, Longomontanus having finished Tycho’s lunar theory and corrected his solar theory took his final departure from Tycho’s service, with letters of recommendation, on 4 August 1600. When Tycho died 24 October 1601 it was thus Kepler, who became his successor as Imperial Mathematicus and inherited his data, if only after a long dispute with Tycho’s relatives, and not Longomontanus, which Tycho would certainly have preferred.
Longomontanus again wandered around Northern Europe finally becoming rector of his alma mater the cathedral school in Viborg in 1603. In 1605, supported by the Royal Chancellor, Christian Friis, he became extraordinary professor for mathematics at the University of Copenhagen, moving on to become professor for Latin literature in the same year. In 1607 he became professor for mathematics, and in 1621 his chair was transformed into an extraordinary chair for astronomy a post he held until his death.
As a professor in Copenhagen he was a member of an influential group of Hven alumni: Cort Aslakssøn (Hven 159-93) professor for theology, Christian Hansen Riber (Hven 1586-90) professor for Greek, as well as Johannes Stephanius (Hven 1582-84) professor for dialectic and Gellius Sascerides (Hven 1585-86) professor for medicine.
Kepler and Longomontanus corresponded for a time in the first decade of the seventeenth century but the exchange between the convinced supporter of heliocentricity and Tycho’s most loyal lieutenant was not a friendly one as can be seen from the following exchange:
Longomontanus wrote to Kepler 6th May 1604:
These and perhaps all other things that were discovered and worked out by Tycho during his restoration of astronomy for our eternal benefit, you, my dear Kepler, although submerged in shit in the Augean stable of old, do not scruple to equal. And you promise your labor in cleansing them anew and even triumph, as if we should recognise you as Hercules reborn. But certainly no one does, and prefers you to such a man, unless when all of it has been cleaned away, he understands that you have substituted more appropriate things in the heaven and in the celestial appearances. For in this is victory for the astronomer to be seen, in this, triumph. On the other hand, I seriously doubt that such things can ever be presented by you. However, I am concerned lest this sordid insolence of yours defile the excellent opinion of all good and intelligent men about the late Tycho, and become offensive.
Kepler responded early in 1605:
The tone of your reference to my Augean stable sticks in my mind. I entreat you to avoid chicanery, which is wont to be used frequently with regard to unpopular things. So that you might see that I have in mind how the Augean stable provided me with the certain conviction that I have not discredited astronomy – although you can gather from the present letter – I will use it with the greatest possible justification. But it is to be used as an analogy, not for those things that you or Tycho were responsible for constructing – which either blinded by rage or perverted by malice you quite wrongfully attributed to me – but rather in the comparison of the ancient hypotheses with my oval path2. You discredit my oval path. I hold up to you the hundred-times-more-absurd spirals of the ancients (which Tycho imitated by not setting up anything new but letting the old things remain). If you are angry that I cannot eliminate the oval path, how much more ought you to be angry with the spirals, which I abolished. It is as though I have sinned with the oval I have left, even though to you all the rest of the ancients do not sin with so many spirals. This is like being punished for leaving behind one barrow full of shit although I have cleaned the rest of the Augean stables. Or in your sense, you repudiate my oval as one wagon of manure while you tolerate the spirals which are the whole stable, to the extent that my oval is one wagon. But it is unpleasant to tarry in rebutting this most manifest slander.
Whereas, as already mentioned above, Kepler presented his heliocentric theory to the world in 1609, Longomontanus first honoured Tycho’s memory with his Astronomia Danica in 1622. Using Tycho’s data Longomontanus provided planetary models and planetary tables for Tycho’s geo-heliocentric system. Longomontanus, however, differed from Tycho in that he adopted the diurnal rotation of Helisaeus Roeslin, Nicolaus Raimarus and David Origanus.
The Astronomia Danica saw two new editions in 1640 and 1663. For the five decades between 1620 and 1670 Kepler’s elliptical astronomy and the Tychonic geo-heliocentric system with diurnal rotation competed for supremacy in the European astronomical community with Kepler’s elliptical system finally triumphing.
In 1625 Longomontanus suggested to the King, Christian IV, that he should build an observatory to replace Tycho’s Stjerneborg, which had been demolished in 1601. The observatory, the Rundetaarn (Round Tower), was conceived as part of the Trinitatis Complex: a university church, a library and the observatory. The foundation stone was laid on 7 July 1637 and the tower was finished in 1642. Longomontanus was appointed the first director of the observatory, after Leiden 1632 only the second national observatory in Europe.
Both Kepler and Longomontanus, who lost their fathers early, started life as paupers Both of them worked they way up to become leading European astronomers. Kepler has entered the pantheon of scientific gods, whereas Longomontanus has largely been assigned to the dustbin of history. Although Longomontanus cannot be considered Kepler’s equal, I think he deserves better, even if he did back the wrong theory.