Before continuing with Tycho Brahe’s contributions to the development of modern astronomy it pays to take stock of the existing situation in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. The Middle Ages had cobbled together a model of the cosmos that consisted of three separate but interlocking blocks: Aristotelian cosmology, Ptolemaic astronomy and Aristotelian physics, whereby it should be noted that the medieval Aristotelian physics was, to paraphrase Edward Grant, not Aristotle’s physics. In order for a new astronomy to come into use, as we shall see, the whole model had to dissembled and each of the three blocks replaced with something new.
As we saw at the beginning, some aspects of Aristotelian cosmology–supralunar perfection and cometary theory–were already under scrutiny well before Copernicus published his De revolutionibus. They now fell following the European wide observations of the supernova in 1572 and the great comet of 1577; the Aristotelian crystalline spheres went with them, although Clavius, the leading Ptolemaic astronomer of the age, whilst prepared to sacrifice supralunar perfection and Aristotelian cometary theory, was not yet prepared to abandon the crystalline spheres. The model was beginning to crumble at the edges.
The acceptance of Copernicus’ heliocentric system had been very meagre but the interest in his mathematical models, his astronomical data and the planetary tables and ephemerides based on them had originally been very great. However, it quickly became clear that they were no more accurate or reliable than those delivered by the Ptolemaic system and the initial interest and enthusiasm gave way to disappointment and frustration. Out of this situation both Wilhelm IV in Kassel and Tycho Brahe in Denmark, following Regiomontanus’ initiative from a century earlier, decided that what was needed was to go back to basics and produce new star catalogues and planetary tables based on new accurate observations and set about doing just that. We have already looked to Wilhelm’s efforts; we now turn to Tycho’s.
Whereas it is theoretically possible to question the claim that Wilhelm IV had built an observatory, no such doubt exists in Tycho’s case. What he erected on his island was not so much an observatory, as a research institute the like of which had never existed before in Europe.
The centrepiece of Tycho’s establishment was his palace Uraniborg, a magnificent purpose built red brick residence and observatory. The structure included a large mural quadrant and outer towers on the balconies of which a large array of self designed and constructed instruments were situated.
As it turned out that the accuracy of the tower-mounted instrument was affected by vibration caused by the wind, Tycho constructed a second observatory, Stjerneborg. This observatory was effectively situated underground in a large pit to reduce wind vibration of the instruments.
As well as his two state of the art observatories, Tycho also constructed alchemical laboratories in the cellars of Uraniborg, to carry out experiments in Paracelsian pharmacology. To publish the results of his researches Tycho constructed his own printing press and to ensure that he would have enough paper for those publications, he also constructed a water powered paper mill.
Whereas Wilhelm’s astronomical activities were a side project to his main occupation of ruling Hesse-Kassel and the work on his star catalogue was carried out by just two people, Rothmann and Bürgi, Tycho’s activities on Hven were totally dedicated to astronomy and he employed a small army of servants and assistants. Alongside the servants he needed to run his palace and its extensive gardens Tycho employed printers and papermakers and a large number of astronomical observers. Some of those who worked as astronomers on Hven and later in Prague, such as Longomontanus, who later became professor for astronomy in Copenhagen, did so for many years. Others came to work for him for shorter periods, six or nine months or a year. These shorter-term periods working for Tycho worked like a form of postgrad internship for those thus employed. Good examples of this are the Dutch cartographer and Globemaker Willem Janszoon Blaeu (1571–1638), who spent six months on Hven in 1595-96
and the Franconian mathematician and astronomer Simon Marius (1573–1625) who spent six months in Tycho’s observatory in Prague in 1601 shorty before Tycho’s death.
Tycho’s observation programme was massive and very much for the duration, starting in the mid 1570s and continuing up to his death in 1601. His teams spent every night of the year, weather permitting, systematically observing the heavens. Two teams, one in Uraniborg and the other in Stjerneborg, made the same observations parallel to but completely independent of each other, allowing Tycho to compare the data for errors. They not only, over the years, compiled a star catalogue of over 700 stars with an accuracy of several factors higher than anything produced earlier but also systematically tracked the orbits of the planets producing the data that would later prove so crucial for Johannes Kepler’s work.
When Tycho was satisfied with the determination of the position of a given star then it was engraved on a large celestial globe that he had had constructed in Germany on one of his journeys. When Willem Janszoon Blaeu was on Hven, Tycho allowed him to make a copy of this globe with the new more accurate stellar positions, which he took with him when he returned to The Netherlands. So from the very beginning Blaeu’s commercial celestial spheres, which dominated the market in the seventeenth century, were based on the best astronomical data available.
Tycho not only systematically observed using instruments and methods known up to his times but devoted much time, effort and experimentation to producing ever better observing instruments with improved scales for more accurate readings. He also studied and developed methods for recognising and correcting observational errors. It is not an exaggeration to say that Tycho dedicated his life to producing observational astronomical data on a level and of a quality never before known in European astronomy.
In 1588 Tycho’s patron and benefactor Frederick II died and after a period of regency his son, who was only eleven years old when he died, was crowned king as Christian IV in 1596.
Due to a mixture of court intrigue and his own arrogance, Tycho fell into disfavour and Christian cut off his finances from the crown. Still a wealthy man, from his private inheritances, Tycho packed up his home and some of his instruments and left Denmark heading south through Germany in 1597, looking for a new patron. In 1599 he settled in Prague under the patronage of Rudolf II as Imperial Mathematicus,
erecting a new observatory in a castle in Benátky nad Jizerou about fifty kilometres from Prague.
Tycho’s biggest problem was that he had vast quantities of, for the time, highly accurate astronomical data that now needed to be processed and he was in desperate need of a mathematician who was capable of carrying out the work. Fate intervened in the form of the still relatively young Johannes Kepler ((1571–1630), who turned up in Prague in 1600 frantically looking for employment.
This was a partnership made in hell rather than heaven but it did not last long as Tycho died under unclear circumstances in October 1601, with Kepler inheriting his position as Imperial Mathematicus. I will deal with Kepler’s leading role in the story of modern astronomy in later episodes but we still need to look at Tycho’s last contribution, the so-called Tychonic system.
In his Bibliographical Directory of Tycho Brahe’s Artisans, Assistants, Clients, Students, Coworkers and Other Famuli and Associates, pages 251–309 in his On Tycho’s Island: Tycho Brahe, Science, and Culture in the Sixteenth Century, John Robert Christianson list 96 names.
Anybody who brings up, in the comments, the harebrained theory that Kepler murdered Tycho in order to obtain his astronomical data will not only get banned from the Renaissance Mathematicus in perpetuity but will be cursed by demons, who will visit them in their sleep every night for the rest of their pathetic lives.