This Danish astronomer questioned some ideas of Copernicus and was one of the pioneers in his field.
The human being has always looked at the sky and the stars with veneration and respect. An indecipherable unknown for most of the population for much of history, the heavenly bodies have been the object of worship, origin of myths and different mystical and religious beliefs. And since ancient times, humanity has tried to explain what lies beyond and how the cosmos works.
One of the most influential and important figures throughout history was Copernicus, who proposed the heliocentric theory. Another, perhaps somewhat less known, is Tycho Brahe.
This man is considered one of the most important astronomers in history, born at a time when neither telescopes nor precise mechanisms existed to observe the behavior of the stars. Knowing his history is important to understand the importance of his discoveries, and that is why throughout this article we are going to see a short biography of Tycho Brahe.
Tycho Brahe biography
Tyge Ottesen Brahe, better known as Tycho Brahe (Latinization of his name), was born on December 14, 1546 in the castle of Knudstrup, a property built by his father and located in a then Danish Scania. He was the first-born (he was born with a twin but he died early) of the royal advisor Otte Brahe and Beate Clausdatter Bille, both members of the Danish nobility and aristocracy and with great power.
Young Tycho, however, was not raised by them but by his uncle Joergen Brahe, who had no offspring. Initially he was kidnapped by his uncle, but his parents decided to allow him to keep the child and raise it. Joergen Brahe gave him great support throughout his life and decided to educate him in the best possible way, helping to train him in areas such as knowledge of Latin.
When he turned thirteen in 1559 his uncle decided to send him to the University of Copenhagen to study philosophy and rhetoric, with the purpose of having a life as a nobleman in the service of the crown.
A year after his arrival at the University, something happened that would largely mark the fate of young Tycho Brahe: he was able to observe a solar eclipse. Since then, Brahe’s main objective was to study astronomy, incorporating subjects on this subject and mathematics into his studies.
After finishing his studies at that university, he decided to continue his training at the University of Leipzig in 1562 in order to study law, while his fascination and studies on the stars and astronomy continued to grow. During his training in this area he had a dispute with another student, which resulted in a duel in which he lost a large part of his nose. He was also able to observe that the astronomical forecasts of the time had a large number of errors.
The same year that he lost his nose, 1565, the conflict situation during the Seven Years’ War was such that his uncle Joergen made him return to Copenhagen for safety. He would pass away shortly after, leaving his inheritance to his nephew. With this inheritance he continued his training in astronomy and medicine at the universities of Wittenberg and Rostock.
Little by little the young Tycho was reaching a certain popularity, something that did not go unnoticed in the eyes of the king and he was offered a position in Roskilde Cathedral. His father died in 1571, after which he lived with another of his uncles.
A star in the sky
One day in 1572, a star that had never been observed before in the sky appeared: the constellation of Cassiopeia. This star, actually a nova, was of great interest to the author and he spent about a year making various observations. In them he could see that there was no parallax regardless from where he looked (that is, there was no difference in his apparent position). The appearance of this star caused the author to make one of what would be considered the greatest contributions: the contradiction of the idea that fixed stars were immutable, until then in force.
In 1573 he published his first work, in which he would reflect his observations: “De nova stella”. This work would make her achieve great popularity. Also during that same year he would have a relationship with a woman of peasant origin named Kirstine, with whom he would unite despite the opposition of his family and with whom he would have children.
The island of Hven and Uraniborg
Tycho Brahe enjoyed the sympathy of the monarch Frederick II, who handed him over the property of the island of Hveen in 1576. In it the astronomer built the largest and most developed observatory of the time, which he called the city of heaven o Uraniborg. In this observatory he would spend two decades making astonishingly precise (remember that the telescope was not yet invented) and numerous measurements and observations of the stars.
Among the observations he made, he was able to see how the movement of the stars was not perfectly circular but rather traced an ellipse. Specifically, from the analysis of the behavior of comets. This observation and a later one during the year 1588 led him to another great new discovery for the time that contradicted pre-existing beliefs: it proved that comets were not found in the atmosphere of our planet but outside it.
On the other hand, and largely due to the difficulty in accurately measuring the motion of the stars, Brahe came to the conclusion that Copernicus’ ideas were incorrect since, if the heliocentric theory were true, the human being should be able to perceive the parallax of the stars (something that has subsequently been seen to occur).
Last years, death and legacy
In the same 1588 King Federico II died. something that caused Tycho Brahe to lose his claim to the island of Hven and the pension he received from the monarch. That is why during 1597 he decided to leave Denmark. In 1599 he was welcomed in Prague by King Rudolf II, who made him the imperial mathematician and offered him a castle as an observatory and a considerable sum of money as fees. Likewise, he would come into contact with the one who would be his disciple and also relevant author Johannes Kepler.
A year later Brahe and Kepler met for a collaboration, which was initially full of disagreements but ended with Kepler as the astronomer’s assistant and was highly fruitful. However, in 1601 Brahe became seriously ill. Death came to Brahe on October 24, 1601, in the city of Prague, due to kidney failure that ended his life. He previously asked his assistant to finish his work.
The legacy of this important astronomer is enormous, since thanks to him the behavior of the cosmos began to be investigated in greater depth and some beliefs that existed since ancient times could be contrasted. Not for nothing is considered one of the most important astronomers in the world, and was a source of inspiration for other greats such as his disciple Kepler.
- Gribbin, J. (2006). History of science, 1543–2001. Barcelona: Criticism.