Tycho Brahe is considered by many to be the greatest pre-telescopic era observational astronomer. He was also an alchemist, astrologer, elk-owner1, prosthetic nose-wearer and nobleman.
Tyge Ottesen Brahe (he adopted the Latinised version of his first name, Tycho, when he was about 15) was born on 14 December, 1546 along with his twin brother, in Knutstorp Castle, the family home of Otte Brahe (County Sheriff of Helsingborg Castle) and his wife, Beate Bille (a Lady in Waiting to Queen Sophie). Knutstorp was part of Scania (or Skåne), then a province of Denmark, located in modern day south-western Sweden. His twin Niels died before baptism, though Tycho had four other brothers, Jörgen, Axel, Knud, and Steen; and five sisters, Lisbet, Maren, Margrethe, Kirsten, and Sophie.
When Tycho2 was about two he was abducted by his paternal uncle, Jorgen Brahe and brought to Tostrup Castle to live with him and his wife. Some accounts state that as Jorgen and Inger Oxe were childless, they had previously agreed with Otte Brahe that should he have a son, they would adopt him. Otte is thought to have reneged on the deal, hence Jorgen's drastic action. Tycho's parents don't appear to have tried too hard get him back, or disputed the claim.
In 1559 at the age of 13, Tycho was encouraged by his uncle to attend the University of Copenhagen to read law. Here he became interested in and started studying other subjects such as philosophy, rhetoric and sciences. A total solar eclipse had been forecast on 21 August, 1560 and when the advance predictions of this event were confirmed it fired Tycho's enthusiasm for astronomy, and he began to study the subject in more detail with the help of the professors. His breakthrough was to realise that systematic observations, night after night, and more accurate and precise instruments to take measurements with would advance the science beyond guesswork and intuition.
Tycho also studied at the universities of Leipzig, Wittenberg, Rostock and Basel. At some point (generally thought to be about 1566) he became involved in an argument with another scholar at Rostock as to who was the best mathematician, resulting in duel that left Tycho minus part of his nose (accounts range from the entire probiscus to just the tip). Tycho resorted to wearing a false nose, made of silver, and having to use balms to stop it from drying out. His interest in medicines and alchemy is thought to stem from this incident.
At the time in Europe, the celestial sphere was generally considered to be created by God as divinely perfect and unchanging, as well as being geocentric, where the Sun, Moon, planets and stars orbit around a fixed Earth (often referred to as the 'Ptolemaic' system after Ptolemy, the Greek mathematician and astrologer).
On 11 November, 1572 Tycho observed a new star in the constellation of Cassiopeia, brighter than the others, which didn't fade for a year. If the celestial sphere was fixed by God, then the new star had to be located between the Earth and the Moon, and should be seen to shift position. Parallax is where an object, in this case a star, is seen to apparently move as a result of the viewpoint of the observer changing (such as the Earth moving from one extreme of its orbit to the other). Parallax measurements are used to trigonometrically deduce distance between an object in space and the earth. Taking his usual meticulous observations, he realised that the object had to be far away from the earth, further even than the planets, as the star only very slightly shifted its position relative to the background over time. What Tycho had observed was a supernova, the death throes of a large heavy-mass star. He published the finding in his book De Stella Nova.
In 1577 Tycho observed a comet, and again used parallax and the records of how the comet appeared to change to conclude that the stars, planets and other heavenly bodies weren't fixed in crystalline spheres, but moving about in space.
Tycho's work in general proved the motion of the planets around the Sun but he could not bring himself to entirely adopt the Copernican (heliocentric) view of the solar system, proposing instead a hybrid 'Tychonic' system where the planets revolve around the Sun, but the Sun and Moon still orbit the fixed Earth.
By Royal Appointment
As a nobleman, Tycho was destined to become one of the ruling class, but he was determined to be a scientist, and had planned to move to Switzerland to achieve this. King Fredrik II wasn't about to let this incidence of 'brain drain' occur, and in 1576 offered Tycho lifetime possession of the island of Hven (also called Ven). Tycho got a place that he could dedicate to his work, and the King retained one of the rising stars of the early Renaissance, bringing fame to his homeland.
On the island, he set up Uraniborg, his small mansion (with rooms set aside for both his assistants and visiting dignitaries) and gardens, an observatory, an aviary and fish pond, a printing press, a bookbinders and papermakers, and a workshop to build and maintain the instruments he used to take the measurements. The laboratory in the basement of the house had 16 furnaces for his various experiments. By bringing in scientists and learned men and women from across Europe, he created one of the first dedicated research institutes outside of the universities and colleges. The assistants were hired on contracts stating that in return for being fed, clothed and housed they would help Tycho with his experiments, and not divulge the data to anyone else.
Tycho is considered the first modern scientist in that he not only built instruments of remarkable accuracy, including a quadrant thirty-seven feet high calibrated to the minute of an arc and a clepsydra which kept time through the steady dripping of mercury, but he repeated every measurement four times, made precise allowance for the errors in his equipment and even worked out a refraction table to correct altitude angles for the bending of light... Using as many as nine assistants at one time he insisted that every fact be checked and rechecked before it was recorded... A clue to the quality of his results... a successful measurement of the length of the year to within one second of the modern figure... and the construction of a five-feet-high brass globe on which was engraved the positions of 777 stars.
Guy Murchie in his book Music of the Spheres.
Two of the more unusual members of the Uraniborg 'staff' were Jepp, an allegedly clairvoyant dwarf, and his pet elk. During one particularly 'good' party, the elk somehow made it upstairs in the castle and managed to find some unattended open barrels of beer. The inebriated hoofed mammal then unsuccessfully tried to get back down the stairs, broke its legs, and died. A booze-crazed elk intent on destruction (or a kebab) must have been a hell of a sight. Tycho was said to be heartbroken at his pet's demise.
Although employed by King Fredrik to provide annual predictions for the royal court based on astrology, it seems Tycho wasn't entirely convinced of its veracity:
Astrologers do not bind man's will to the stars, but confess that there is something within man that is raised above the level of the stars... God has created man so that he might, if he wills it so, defeat the stars' ominous inclinations.
This did not stop him from drawing up a list of days in the year (Tycho Days) when it was considered advantageous to stay in bed, as unfortunate events were bound to occur. Even today in parts of Scandinavia, a day when everything goes wrong is called a 'Tycho Brahe Day'.
Tycho was in love with Kirstine Barbara Jörgensdatter, a commoner. They married in 1573 and went on to have eight children, but the difference in status between husband and wife meant the children (though legitimate) were regarded as commoners like their mother and could not inherit Tycho's estate, title or name. As a result of this and a dispute with the Danish Court he left Denmark in the late 1590s, going into exile in Prague. Here he took up the position of 'Imperial Mathematician' for Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor.
Tycho Brahe died in unusual circumstances. The common story is that he attended a banquet on 13 October, 1601 enjoying the copious quantities of food and drink on offer. Being a nobleman and well versed in manners, he apparently put politeness above the call of nature, and wouldn’t leave the table for the duration. He finally went home, feeling feverish and lapsing in and out of consciousness, blamed on an infection of the bladder caused by the 'strain' and on his deathbed he repeated the same line over and over: 'Ne frustra vixisse videar' (May I not have lived in vain), finally dying on 24 October, 1601. He was awarded a Historic Darwin Award in 1994 for removing himself from the gene pool in this unusual, if well-meaning manner. Tycho is buried in the church of Our Lady before Tyn, in Prague. His wife Kirstine, who died in 1604, is buried next to him.
Other theories for his demise have been put forward: high levels of mercury were found when his hair was analysed in 1996, which leads some to believe he was poisoned. This evidence is not conclusive as mercury was commonly used while gold-plating instruments, and like many of his contemporaries, Tycho was interested in alchemy and used mercury in many of his medicines.
Tycho is often relegated to the footnotes of scientific history, his legacy eclipsed by his student Johannes Kepler, who had tried in vain to convince him of the heliocentric model. Kepler was appointed Imperial Mathematician after Tycho's death, and by utilising his data, worked out the nature of the planetary motion, as described in his three laws. Without Tycho's accuracy and tutelage, would Kepler have formulated those laws which were later to inspire Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke? John Flamsteed (1646 - 1719), the first Astronomer Royal and founder of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich is said to have been inspired by his work and how he set up Uraniborg.
Tycho is not completely forgotten though: a crater on the Moon has been named 'Tycho' and one on Mars named 'Tycho Brahe'. The island of Ven is now home to the Tycho Brahe Museum. A Scandinavian shipping company decided to name one of their passenger ferries 'Tycho Brahe' in honour of the great man, but everyone shook their heads, saying it would bring bad luck. Sure enough, the ferry was involved in several minor accidents, and in February 1996 ran into the quay with such force that it had to be taken out of traffic to be repaired at a shipyard. Definitely a Tycho Day for the captain.