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Tycho Brahe, the scandalous astronomer - Dan Wenkel


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If you think scientists lead boring, monotonous lives, you must not know about Tycho Brahe. The 16th century astronomer who accurately predicted planetary motion led quite a dramatic life -- complete with a kidnapping, a sword duel and even a clairvoyant dwarf. Dan Wenkel dives into the history behind this sensational scientist, explaining how he continued to inspire intrigue even after his death.

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Tycho Brahe abandoned his island observatories in 1597 and left the country after he fell out of favor with the new Danish King Christian IV. Shortly after Tycho’s death in 1601, the Uraniborg castle-observatory and nearby underground Stjerneborg observatory were both completely destroyed. The observatory grounds on Hven Island (now part of Sweden) are today home to the Tycho Brahe Museum.

Tycho Brahe’s enormous body of work forever changed astronomy. Using astronomical instruments that he designed, he meticulously recorded data with a precision never seen before. His large mural quadrant was just one of an arsenal of instruments that were used to track celestial movements with an accuracy that was often an order of magnitude beyond the existing measurements of the time. All of this occurred before Galileo pioneered the use of the astronomical telescope around 1609, eight years after Brahe’s death.

Brahe painstakingly tracked objects in the night sky during their entire orbits, not just at specific points as was done in the past. This led to his discovery of a supernova in 1572, which at the time was considered to be a “new star.” In 1577 he also carefully observed a comet. Once thought to be within the Earth’s atmosphere, Brahe used the phenomenon of parallax to demonstrate that the comet was far beyond the distance of the moon.

Although Brahe made several advances in the field of astronomy, he incorrectly subscribed to a geocentric model of the solar system. Brahe developed the Tychonic model of the solar system which was essentially a hybrid of the Ptolemaic and Copernican models. It incorporated the circular orbits suggested by Ptolemy, and the heliocentric configuration suggested by Copernicus. The Tychonic model suggested that the planets revolved around the sun, which in turn orbited around a fixed Earth.

Tycho Brahe is one of several famous scientists that lived during the Renaissance period in Europe who could be described as a polymath, or a person who has expertise in a variety of subject areas. Besides astronomy, Brahe had interests in the design of scientific instruments, alchemy, mathematics, astrology, meteorology, and poetry. While we recognize many famous names from the Renaissance, we rarely dig deeper into their careers. We don’t think of Nicolaus Copernicus as a physician, Galileo as a physicist, or Michelangelo as an architectural engineer, yet they all were experts in these areas as well. Perhaps the most famous Renaissance polymath was Leonardo da Vinci. While often recognized as a scientist and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci was also an accomplished artist, mathematician and philosopher. Learn more about the da Vinci by taking a closer look at his iconic drawing, the Vitruvian Man in this piece by James Earle.

Tycho Brahe Museum Homepage

Detailed Specifications of Tycho Brahe’s Island

Description of Tycho Brahe’s Instruments

Smithsonian Library- Tycho Brahe’s Instruments

Library of Congress Reference- The Lord of Uraniborg: A Biography of Tycho Brahe

Curriculum Vitae of Tycho Brahe

University of Cambridge: Tycho Brahe

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  • Educator Dan Wenkel
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