A Danish nobleman, Tycho Brahe made important contribution in the world of astronomy. He was one of the first few individuals who devised his own instruments before the invention of the telescope to observe the heavens. The instruments allowed Brahe to determine the movements of celestial objects and the motion of the solar system even more precisely. In particular, Brahe made significant contributions in the study of the moon and the planet Mars, which would later prove extremely useful to another astronomer, Johannes Kepler. Known to be a colorful character, Brahe’s theories were instrumental in the development of the studies on planetary motion and he even made significant contributions in the field of Mathematics. Of all the historical works, his works on Lunar theory and his works on Ptolemaic’s idea catapulted him to fame. He was even given the position of Imperial astronomer to Emperor Rudolph II, to whom he proposed the Rudolphine and Prutenic Tables a short while before his death. Read on to know more about this interesting personality.
Childhood And Early Life
Born in 1546, Brahe was the eldest son of a noble, Danish family who occupied themselves with hunting and warfare. However, Brahe had an uncle, who was far more educated and childless. Thus, Brahe’s father made a pact with the uncle saying that if he ever had a son, the uncle could take full responsibility for the boy and raise him as his own. But the father went back on his word and wanted to keep Brahe for himself after he was born. When the second child was born, the uncle kidnapped Brahe and raised him as his own son. Thus, Tycho stood to inherit a large estate from his uncle later in life.
As a young boy, Brahe wanted to study Latin and Law. With the support and encouragement from his uncle, Brahe entered the University of Copenhagen to study law and philosophy much against the will of his parents. One day, Brahe observed a partial eclipse of the sun, and as he learnt the basic tables based on Copernicus’ theory and also studied some of Ptolemy’s works, he decided to study the astronomical tables and the positions of the planets, much to the amusement of his uncle. This sudden bout of energy was not taken seriously and his uncle sent Brahe to Leipzig, in Germany to study law at the age of sixteen.
It was at the Leipzig that Brahe realized that he was obsessed with astronomy. He bought several books and instruments and stayed up several nights observing the stars. One night, Brahe observed that Jupiter and Saturn passed very close to each other, something that was not predicted accurately by Copernicus or Alfonsine—two of the greatest astronomers. Shocked, Brahe realized that their observations were not at all accurate and that it was high time he came up with a few tables of his own observations. Realizing that studying law was a hopeless attempt, he decided to channel all his energies into studying astronomy.
Brahe realized that it was time he pursued astronomy seriously. He was only nineteen. In Germany, he decided to affiliate himself with a group of famous astronomers and proposed his ideas to them. His theories were met with criticism at first, but then slowly, Brahe convinced the astronomers that they would be requiring more complex instruments to predict the nature of the universe and the celestial movements more accurately. As telescopes were not invented at the time, he suggested large quadrants to understand the lines and the patterns of the various planets and stars. Setting up quadrants required a large amount of effort and time. This was the beginning of Brahe’s accurate astronomical observations.
In 1572, an astronomical event changed Brahe’s life forever. On November 11, while walking back home from an alchemy lab in Germany; Brahe noticed that the night sky was unusually bright. He could not believe his eyes and the new star that brightened the sky to such an extent was indeed a Supernova—a celestial wonder that was sighted only twice before, one of them, during the birth of Christ. Many leading astronomers such as Thomas Diggs and Maestlin tried to predict the movement and detect the source of this new nova. However, their endeavors were unsuccessful.
Coincidentally, Brahe had just finished working on a new astronomical device, known as the ‘sextant’ that could peer further into the sky than any of the other instruments that even existed. His technology was far ahead of his time and he was finally able to gauge the source and the movement of the Supernova. Brahe concluded that the new star did not move at all and was located in the eighth sphere of the universe. He published this account the following year and shot to fame, though he was very hesitant to publish the works since he was a nobleman. He even received several requests from budding astronomers to teach them astronomy, but he never obliged, owing to his lineage. However, during the course of time, he agreed to accept the position of Imperial astronomer proposed to him by Emperor Rudolph II towards the late 1590’s just before his death.
Through the course of his life, Brahe built a couple of observatories. He published his first findings in 1572 from the first observatory at Herrevad Abbey. Brahe also built an observatory, ‘Uraniborg’ in 1576 and then another one called ‘Stjeneborg’ in 1581. Uraniborg was more of a research center where budding students, lecturers and enthusiasts could work on the subject of astronomy between the years 1576 to 1597. Following the publication of his famous book, ‘Astronomiae instauratea mechanica’ in 1598, Brahe moved to Prague and built a new observatory in a castle and worked there for a year. He was then called by the emperor and lived with the emperor till his death. He was instrumental in preparing birth charts, weather forecast, the prediction of astronomical events such as the Great Comet of 1577 and the Supernova of 1572.
‘Astronomiae instauratea mechanica’
Geo-heliocentric astronomical model
Tycho’s Lunar theory
Brahe was ridiculed by his family all his life for studying astronomy and was labeled a ‘stargazer’. The only support he ever received was from his uncle, who passed away much before Brahe could establish himself as a full-fledged astronomer. In one unfortunate incident with another student, Brahe lost his nose in a tempered dual and the lost piece was replaced by a gold and silver alloy. Towards the end of 1571, Brahe fell in love with a woman named Kirsten and lived with her without being bound by marriage. In Danish law, being a nobleman gave you the benefit of living openly with another woman without having to actually get married to her. She would receive all of his noble privileges, title and even status and their children would be legitimate in the eyes of the law. Together, they had eight children, two of them, who died in infancy. The couple lived together for almost thirty years until Brahe’s death.
Death And Legacy
Brahe suddenly contracted a kidney ailment and died on October 24, 1601. He was no longer able to urinate and often complained of excruciating pain. Before dying, he worked with Johannes Kepler and worked on the Rudolphine Tables with him. A budding astronomer himself, Kepler would take after Brahe’s work after his death. It is said that Brahe might have suffered and succumbed to a certain kidney condition called ‘uremia’ or mercury poisoning.
Following Brahe’s death, some of the greatest astronomers such as Johannes Kepler, Galileo and Riccioli followed Brahe’s geo-heliocentric models and Tycho’s planetary model to develop their own theories. Brahe’s distinctive contributions to the lunar theory also doubled the discoveries and the study of the moon after his death by many of his successors. His observations were also central to the theory of the scientific revolution. The crater ‘Tycho’ is named after him and even the Tycho Brahe Planetarium in Copenhagen was erected owing to his priceless astronomical contributions.
1546: Brahe was born in Scania, Denmark to a wealth, noble family.
1560: Switched interests from law to astronomy.
1563: Brahe made his first testified astronomical observation.
1565: He travelled through Europe studying various astronomer’s works and ideas.
1571: Brahe constructed the first observatory and also published his first work.
1572: Discovered the Supernova.
1573: Brahe settled down with a peasant girl called Kirsten and gave her the status of a noble family.
1577: Observed and recorded the sighting of the Great Comet.
1598: Published one of his most famous works, ‘Astronomiae instauratea mechanica’.
1601: Passed away on 14th October in Prague following a brief illness.