Tycho Brahe Essay - Critical Essays

Brahe, Tycho


Tycho Brahe 1546–1601

Danish astronomer and poet.

An outstanding and influential sixteenth-century astronomer, Tycho Brahe is esteemed mostly for his comprehensive study of the visible planets and stars which announced the era of modern, scientific astronomy. An intermediate between the commanding figures of Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler, Brahe devised a cosmological system that blends a degree of Copernican planetary mechanics with his own meticulous and exhaustive observations. Unwilling to abandon the centuries-old geocentric scheme as Copernicus had, Brahe nevertheless made significant advances in the technique of astronomical inquiry, and is credited with applying the scientific method of repeated experimentation and observation to the art of astronomy. In addition, his remarkable and detailed accounts of a new star (supernova) in the constellation of Cassiopeia, and of the comet of 1577 led some scholars to suggest that Brahe was among the first to offer incontrovertible evidence against the Church-sanctioned, Aristotelian belief in solid celestial spheres and a permanent, unchanging firmament.

Biographical Information

Brahe was born in December 1546 in Knudstrup, a town in the Scania region of southern Sweden (then controlled by Denmark), into a prosperous aristocratic Danish family. At an early age he was taken into the care of an uncle, who raised Brahe to adulthood and provided liberally for his education. In 1559 the youthful Brahe began the study of law at the University of Copenhagen, but soon discovered that his true interests lay in the field of astronomy. While pursuing his law studies, Brahe devoted his attention skyward and was introduced to the Almagest of Claudius Ptolemy, the dominant astronomical text since classical antiquity. In 1562, Brahe left Copenhagen for the University of Leipzig to further his education in astronomy. The following year, Brahe's observations of Jupiter and Saturn convinced him of the inaccuracy of the current, Copernican tables of planetary, solar, and stellar positions—a situation that Brahe spent the remainder of his life trying to rectify. In 1565, Brahe departed from Leipzig and continued his education in mathematics and astronomy at Wittenburg, Augsburg, and other eminent universities. By the early 1570s he had inherited funds from both his father and uncle, and

took to observing the nighttime skies in his native Scania. On November 11, 1572, Brahe witnessed one of the defining celestial events of his career, the light of a new star—produced by what modern astronomers call a supernova—in the constellation of Cassiopeia. His detailed account of this phenomenon—which had been perceived by others who, however, failed to record the event with the same comprehensive accuracy as Brahe—guaranteed him a rising reputation in the European scientific community.

Brahe's publication of De nova stella (1573) and continued astronomical work impressed King Frederick II of Denmark, who granted him the small Danish islandfief of Hven (now Ven) in 1576. With the continued support of Frederick II, Brahe undertook the construction of an observatory on Hven he would name Uranibourg. Drawing a small but thriving community of young mathematician-astronomers to Hven, Uranibourg provided Brahe with the means to accomplish his goal of cataloging the visible stars, and to more accurately update calculations of their positions, as well as those of the sun, moon, and known planets. Uranibourg was additionally the site of many discoveries, most importantly Brahe's observation of the comet of 1577, the impetus for his crowning astronomical treatise entitled De mundi aetherei recentioribus phaenomenis liber secundus qui est de illustri Stella caudata, published in 1588. King Frederick II's death that same year and the subsequent decreases in Brahe's income over the next decade forced the astronomer from Hven in 1597. Searching for patronage on the continent, he eventually settled in Prague under the support of Emperor Rudolf II in 1599. He died in Bohemia in 1601.

Major Works

The title of Brahe's earliest astronomical work of note, De nova stella, suggests its subject, the new star or supernova he witnessed in November of 1572. A decade and a half later, Brahe produced what scholars agree is his most significant work of astronomy, his De mundi. Ostensibly concerned with the comet of 1577, the work's eighth chapter, however, contains the astronomer's first detailed presentation of his theory of planetary cosmology, the Tychonic system, developed between the years 1583 and 1588. While Brahe believed that he had created a revolutionary cosmology, modern critics acknowledge that his system amounts to something of a compromise between the earth-centered Ptolemaic scheme of antiquity and the heliocentric system of Nicolaus Copernicus's De revolutionibus (1543). Believing that the Copernican system with its moving earth defied the laws of physics, Brahe devised a geocentric organization of the solar system. In the Tychonic system, the sun and moon are represented as orbiting the earth—as Ptolemy had shown them to do in his Almagest, and as most astronomers believed until the seventeenth century—while the remaining five planets then known (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) are placed in everlarger orbits around the sun, as Copernicus had theorized decades before. The remaining nine chapters of the De mundi are devoted to Brahe's observations on the size, composition, and behavior of comets—by far the most comprehensive and accurate treatment of the subject in the sixteenth century—as well as his observations of the work of previous and contemporary astronomers concerning these celestial objects. Brahe's other writings include his lengthy Astronomiae instauratae progymnasmata (1602) and Astronomiae instauratae mechanica (1598). The former includes Brahe's catalogue of 777 stars as well as his solar and lunar theories, the latter details the many innovative astronomical instruments he designed over the course of his career. Brahe's collected works, comprising his correspondence and poetry as well as his scientific writings, have been accumulated in the fifteen volumes of Opera omnia Tychonis Brahe Dani (1913-1929). Among many other writings—the majority of them previously unpublished or privately printed—this collection contains the representative poem Urania Titani, a verse epistle in the style of Ovid which is based on the love affair of Brahe's sister Sophie and her fiancé, Brahe's sometime colleague, Erik Lange.

Critical Reception

The overall assessment of Brahe's contribution to astronomy lies less in the details of his planetary system than in the scientific ideals and methods he pursued. Thus, scholars have been quick to point out that Brahe's earth-centered system does not represent a dramatically counterproductive step away from the Copernican heliocentric cosmology proposed more than four decades prior. Brahe, they have argued, by incorporating something of the Copernican scheme into his earth-centered system and supporting it with extensive observational data (as Copernicus had not) laid a great deal of the groundwork for a successful, inductive demonstration of the true nature of the solar system. Additionally, commentators have noted that Brahe's accumulated data of stellar and planetary motion, passed on to his student and assistant Johannes Kepler, offered the German mathematician the raw material he needed to develop his laws of planetary motion. Finally, Brahe's work on the new star of 1572 and comet of 1577 have generally been regarded as important evidence that presaged Galileo Galilei's dismantling of the traditional Aristotelian cosmology of solid celestial spheres in the early seventeenth century.

Principal Works

De nova Stella (astronomy) 1573

*De mundi aetherei recentioribus phaenomenis liber secundus qui est de illustri Stella caudata ab elapso fere triente Nouembris anno MDLXXVII usque in finem Januarii sequentis conspecta (astronomy) 1588

Epistolae astronomicae (letters) 1596

Astronomiae instauratae mechanica (astronomy) 1598

*Astronomiae instauratae progymnasmata (astronomy) 1602

Opera omnia Tychonis Brahe Dani. 15 vols, (astronomy, poetry, and letters) 1913-1929

*These two works were parts of Brahe's proposed trilogy—the Theatrum astronomicum.


J. L. E. Dreyer (essay date 1890)

SOURCE: "Tycho's Book on the Comet of 1577 and His System of the World," in Tycho Brahe: A Picture of Scientific Life and Work in the Sixteenth Century, Dover Publications, Inc., 1963, pp. 158-85.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1890, Dreyer assesses Brahe 's De mundi—a monograph on the comet of 1577, which contains Brahe's elaboration of his planetary system. Dreyer additionally comments on the state of astronomy in the sixteenth century and the overall significance of Brahe's theories.]

The year 1588 is one of great importance in the life of Tycho Brahe, not only because his firm friend and benefactor died in that year, but also...

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Robert S. Ball (essay date 1895)

SOURCE: "Tycho Brahe," in Great Astronomers, Isbister and Company, Ltd., 1895, pp. 44-66.

[In the following essay, Ball recounts the life of Brahe, noting his character, technical innovations, and impact on the field of astronomy.]

The most picturesque figure in the history of astronomy is undoubtedly that of the famous old Danish astronomer whose name stands at the head of this chapter. Tycho Brahe was alike notable for his astronomical genius and for the extraordinary vehemence of a character which was by no means perfect. His romantic career as a philosopher, and his taste for splendour as a Danish noble, his ardent friendships and his furious quarrels, make him an...

(The entire section is 4293 words.)

Victor E. Thoren (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "An Early Instance of Deductive Discovery: Tycho Brahe's Lunar Theory," in Isis, Vol. 58, Pt. 1, No. 191, Spring, 1967, pp. 19-36.

[In the following excerpt, Thoren probes the gradual, deductive creation of Brahe's theory of the moon.]

Of all the projects undertaken by Tycho Brahe in his redintegration of astronomy, his researches on the lunar theory proved far the most fruitful for him. As a result of his perseverance in the study of the moon's motion, he succeeded in adding four new inequalities to the theory that was already the most complicated of the orbital representations, thereby reducing its discrepancies by a factor of about five. It is with...

(The entire section is 6800 words.)

J. R. Christianson (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Tycho Brahe's German Treatise on the Comet of 1577: A Study in Science and Politics," in Isis, Vol. 70, No. 251, March, 1979, pp. 110-40.

[In the following excerpt, Christianson details the political, religious, and cosmological implications of Brahe's publication of his vernacular treatise on the comet of 1577.]


Tycho Brahe was born into a family with strong political traditions. His father was governor of Aalborg castle and fief, then of the key stronghold of Helsingborg on the Sound, and he ended his days as a Councillor of the Realm. Both of Tycho's grandfathers, all four of his great-grandfathers, and many of his more distant...

(The entire section is 11784 words.)

Victor E. Thoren (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "The Comet of 1577 and Tycho Brahe's System of the World," in Archives internationales d'histoire des sciences, Vol. 29, No. 104, June-December, 1979, pp. 53-67.

[In the following excerpt, Thoren explores the development of Brahe's cosmological system after his observance of the comet of 1577 until his publication of De mundi in 1588.]

Although Tycho's system of the world has traditionally been associated with the comet of 1577, the connection between them has been treated by most commentators as essentially circumstantial: the two have been discussed in the same chapter because Tycho published his accounts of them in the same book, his De mundi...

(The entire section is 6725 words.)

Edward Rosen (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "In Defense of Tycho Brahe," in Archive for History of Exact Sciences, Vol. 24, 1981, pp. 257-65.

[In the following essay, Rosen argues that Brahe was not the annotator of the Prague copy of Nicolaus Copernicus's De revolutionibus, as some have contended.]

Nicholas Copernicus ' On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, in Six Books (Basel Edition) with Annotations Written by the Hand of Tycho Brahe1 was published in facsimile (Prague, 1971), as volume XVI, Editio cimelia Bohemica (cited hereafter as "Cimelia"). On Cimelia's title page an unidentified hand wrote: "Property of the Imperial College of the Society of Jesus...

(The entire section is 3435 words.)

Edward Rosen (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Brahe's Publication of His Hypothesis" and "Brahe's Discovery of Ursus's Plagiarism," in Three Imperial Mathematicians: Kepler Trapped between Tycho Brahe and Ursus, Abaris Books, Inc., 1986, pp. 17-44.

[In the following excerpt, Rosen describes the publication, and the possible plagiarizing, of Brahe 's celestial system in 1588.]

I. Brahe 's Publication of His Hypothesis

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) was one of the greatest observational astronomers of all time. Some people think he was the greatest. But his innovation and skill in observing were not ends in themselves. Their ultimate purpose was to reveal the hidden structure of the...

(The entire section is 4349 words.)

William J. McPeak (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Tycho Brahe Lights Up the Universe," in Astronomy, Vol. 18, No. 12, December, 1990, pp. 28-35.

[In the following essay, McPeak investigates Brahe's scientific accomplishments at Uraniborg and Stjerneborg, detailing the wide variety of astronomical equipment he designed for his two island observatories.]

Tycho Brahe is a forgotten man. When we think of great astronomers of the past, Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei come to mind quickly. But what about the Dane, Tycho Brahe? Most amateur astronomers have a hard time naming his greatest accomplishments.

Despite this, Tycho was one of the all-time greats in science. He...

(The entire section is 2911 words.)

Victor E. Thoren (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "The Tychonic System of the World," in The Lord of Uraniborg: A Biography of Tycho Brahe, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 236-64.

[In the following excerpt, Thoren examines the evolution of Brahe's planetary system and the slow publication of the astronomer's De mundi. Thoren concludes that the observations in Brahe's monograph were insufficient in themselves to overthrow the Aristotelian cosmology of solid celestial spheres, though they were necessary to set this process into motion.]

At the time [Paul] Wittich came to Hven [in 1580], Tycho had probably not thought about planetary theory or cosmology since his deliberations on the comet [of 1577]....

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Peter Zeeberg (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Alchemy, Astrology, and Ovid—A Love Poem by Tycho Brahe," in Acta Conventus Neo-Latini: Proceedings of the Eighth International Congress of Neo-Latin Studies, edited by Rhoda Schnur, et al., Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, No. 120, 1994, pp. 997-1007.

[In the following essay, Zeeberg studies Brahe's Latin poem Urania Titani as a work that blends mythic astrology, the pseudoscience of alchemy, and the literary influence of Ovid.]

The famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) was a scientist and a nobleman.1 In the society of the day that was not a suitable combination. Indeed he was forced to make a choice...

(The entire section is 4576 words.)

E. C. Krupp (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Observing the Occasion," in Sky and Telescope, Vol. 92, No. 6, December, 1996, pp. 68-69.

[In the following essay, Krupp evaluates the legacy of Brahe's astronomical observations.]

Once you get past a sesquicentennial—the felicitously fabricated designation for a 150th anniversary—half-century acknowledgments are awkward and contrived commemorations. Masquerading as milestones, they are missing that zero in the tens place that tells you we really have something to celebrate. Ordinarily, then, I would have let this month's 450th anniversary of the birth of that great Dane Tycho Brahe—on December 14th—pass without cake and candle. But I was too young in...

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Further Reading


Crowther, J. G. "Tycho Brahe," in Six Great Astronomers, pp. 21-49. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1961.

Biographical sketch of Brahe that emphasizes his "establishment of the modern outlook in practical astronomy."

Dreyer, J. L. E. "Tycho Brahe and his Contemporaries." In A History of Astronomy from Thales to Kepler, pp. 345-71. Cambridge: Dover Publications, Inc., 1953.

Survey of Brahe's life, thought, and influence preceded by an evaluation of his immediate predecessors and his contemporary European astronomers.


(The entire section is 608 words.)