Tycho Brahe

Born: 14 Dec 1546 in Knudstrup, Denmark

Died: 24 Oct 1601 in Prague, Bohemia (now Czech Republic)

Tycho Brahe was given the name Tyge by his parents Beate Bille and Otte Brahe. He is now known as "Tycho" since that is the Latinised version of his name that he adopted when he was about fifteen years old. For simplicity we shall use the name Tycho throughout this biography. Otte Brahe, Tycho's father, was from the Danish nobility and was an important man among the Danish King's closest group of supporters. Beate Bille, Tycho's mother, also came from an important family which had produced leading churchmen and politicians. Tycho was one of twin sons, but his twin died shortly after birth. His parents had one older daughter but Tycho was their eldest son.

Here is a picture of his birthplace.

A strange episode occurred when Tycho was two years old. His uncle, Jorgen Brahe (in Tycho's own words, see for example):-

... without the knowledge of my parents took me away with him while I was in my earliest youth.

It was a strange episode since it did not appear to cause any family disputes nor did his parents try to take him back. Jorgen Brahe and his wife Inger Oxe had no children of their own, and they acted as foster parents to Tycho until Jorgen's death. Jorgen Brahe, like his brother Otte Brahe, was a leading Danish noble while Inger Oxe was the sister of Peder Oxe who was a member of the Rigsraads, the governing council consisting of 20 advisors to the King. In fact Tycho benefited most on the educational side from his foster mother Inger Oxe who had scholarly interests as did other members of her family, while the Brahes and the Billes had little time for scholarly pursuits.

Jorgen Brahe commanded Tostrup Castle, and it was in that castle that Tycho lived from the time he was taken by Jorgen until he was six years old. We should not give the impression that he did not travel during this time, for his parents had many administrative duties which took them away and it is likely that Tycho sometimes went with one of them. In 1552 Jorgen was given the command of Vordingborg Castle, which was a promotion to a more important role. About a year after Tycho moved to Vordingborg with his foster parents he began to attend school, almost certainly attending that attached to the local cathedral. Although Tycho's father Otte considered learning Latin a waste of time, his foster parents were much keener that he should receive this type of education. Tycho attended this school until he was twelve years old, then began his university studies.

On 19 April 1559 Tycho began his studies at the University of Copenhagen. There, following the wishes of his uncle, he studied law but also studied a variety of other subjects and became interested in astronomy. It was, however, the eclipse which occurred on 21 August 1560, particularly the fact that it had been predicted, that so impressed him that he began to make his own studies of astronomy helped by some of the professors. He purchased an ephemeris and books such as Sacrobosco's Tractatus de Sphaera, Apianus' Cosmographia seu descriptio totis orbisi and Regiomontanus' De triangulis omnimodis.

His foster parents decided that he should gain experience abroad and in February 1562 he set off with a travelling companion to go to the University of Leipzig. Astronomy was not officially part of his studies, these were classical languages and culture, but he had bought his astronomy books with him together with Dürer's constellation maps. He began making observations and by August 1563, while still at the University of Leipzig, he began to keep a record of these observations. The second observation he recorded was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn which proved significant for Tycho's subsequent career. Neither tables based on Copernicus nor on Ptolemy gave the correct date for the conjunction, Ptolemy's being out by nearly a month and even Copernicus' being out by days. Tycho, with the confidence of someone not yet seventeen, thought he could do better - and he later proved himself to be right!

Tycho now studied astronomy with Bartholomew Schultz at Leibzig who taught him some tricks to obtain more accurate observations. He knew that accurate observations required good instruments and he began to acquire them. Tycho returned home in May 1565 and in the following month his uncle Jorgen gave his life in rescuing the King. His father, who now commanded Helsingborg Castle, and mother assumed responsibility for the young man who was still under eighteen. In 1566 he was off on his travels again, visiting first the university in Wittenberg and then that in Rostock. While in Rostock he was involved in an argument with another Danish student and in the resulting duel Tycho had part of his nose cut off. A consequence of this was that Tycho developed an interest in medicine and alchemy.

After his return home in April 1567 he had an artificial nose made from silver and gold. He was, however, disfigured for life and his portraits show the disfigurement which was almost certainly worse than what the artists portrayed. Tycho's father was keen that he should quickly take up a political career but somehow Tycho persuaded his father to let him make another trip abroad. He first revisited Rostock, then went to Basel, Freiburg, and Augsburg. Tycho had been working on improved instruments for observing for a while, but when in Augsburg he designed some of his own and managed to obtain a patron to underwrite the cost of a major new instrument. In about a month he had a huge quadrant constructed and erected in the estate of his patron outside the city. It was very accurate but was so massive that it required many servants to align it so only one observation could be made each night. Peter Ramus was also on a visit to Germany and while in Augsburg he learnt of Tycho's great quadrant leading to meetings at which the two engaged in deep astronomical discussions. Tycho began constructing another instrument, this time a large celestial globe made from wood.

Receiving word that his father was ill, Tycho returned home during the last few days of 1570. His father died in May 1571 and soon after, with the help of his uncle Steen Bille, Tycho began constructing an observatory in Herrevad Abbey. They also built an alchemy laboratory there since alchemy was becoming a major interest for Tycho. In 1572 he met Kirsten Jorgensdatter, a girl from his home town of Knudstrup, but since she was a commoner and he was a noble, they could not marry legally. Kirsten lived with him, however, as his common law wife. The year 1572 was significant for Tycho in another way as described by Field :-

On 11 November 1572, he emerged into the dark of the early evening, after a long stint of alchemical experimentation, and his first glance at the sky showed him an extra star in the constellation of Cassiopeia, almost directly overhead. He instantly summoned his chemical assistant to confirm that the star really was there. He was not the first to see the new star (a supernova) but his observations of it (published in 1574) did much to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the star really belonged to the firmament and was not merely a local phenomenon in the sublunary world (as comets were generally believed to be). The star is now usually known as 'Tycho's supernova'. It turned Tycho's interest back to astronomy.

Beginning in September 1574 Tycho lectured on astronomy at the University of Copenhagen but gave up in the following spring when he received an annual income from his father's estate. He set off on another trip abroad, first visiting Kassel. The Landgraf Wilhelm IV of Hessen-Kassel had founded an observatory at Kassel about 15 years earlier and Tycho was very impressed by the methods used there. The design of his own observatory would be influence by that at Kassel and Tycho corresponded frequently with the Landgraf; see for more details of their relationship and correspondence.

Leaving Kassel, Tycho visited Frankfurt, Basel and finally Venice before returning to Denmark by the end of 1575. By this time he had made a decision to leave Denmark and to settle in Basel, but King Frederick of Denmark was not going to lose his most eminent scientist easily so he made offers to Tycho to entice him to set up an observatory in Denmark. After some offers which Tycho did not find attractive, the King offered Tycho the island of Hven (called today Ven) :-

With financial help from the King of Denmark, he went on to set up a purpose-built observatory, on the island of Hven in Copenhagen Sound. The observatory, called Uraniborg, was equipped with exceptionally large and accurate instruments (and with an alchemical laboratory in its basement). At Uraniborg Tycho made twenty years' worth of astronomical observations.

Here is Tycho's drawing of the main building at Uraniborg, taken from his Astronomiae instauratae mechanica (1598). Here is his plan of the gardens, from the same work, with the main building in the centre and servants' quarters, a printing studio, and other buildings just inside the outer walls. We should note that Tycho's design was influenced by buildings he had seen in Venice, and was also constructed in a highly geometrical form.

One of the most exciting astronomical events which Tycho observed from Uraniborg was a comet which he first spotted on 13 November 1577. He published his account in De mundi oetherei recentioribus phoenomis (1588) where he draws cosmological conclusions from the fact that his measurements show that the comet is not closer to Earth than the Moon, contradicting Aristotle's model of the cosmos. From his observations Tycho was able to show that the comet was certainly further away than Venus.


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