Article abstract: Brahe realized early that the existing means for observing and measuring celestial bodies and their motions were inaccurate. His great achievements are to have significantly improved existing instruments, to have invented some new instruments, and to have made amazingly accurate observations.
Tyge Brahe Ottosøn was the eldest of ten children born to Otto Brahe. The Brahes were an old and noble family with both Danish and Swedish branches. Tyge’s father was privy councillor to the King of Denmark at the time of Tyge’s birth and ended as governor of Helsingborg Castle in Scania—then part of Denmark. Tycho was not reared with his parents and younger siblings. His father’s brother Jørgen, who was childless, stole him while he was still a baby. Initial turmoil in the family was stilled when Otto’s second son was born. It was therefore in the home of his uncle that Tyge was reared, showing so much early scholarly promise that, in addition to the requisite training for a young nobleman in horseback riding and swordsmanship, he was allowed to learn Latin in the hope that he would become a statesman and counselor to the king.
At thirteen, he entered the University of Copenhagen, head held high above a piped collar and small rapiers by his side. Thirteen was not an unusual age for university entry at the time. He studied, as did most of his colleagues, philosophy, rhetoric, and law. The curriculum was in Latin. His academic career was planned for him: After finishing his studies in Denmark, he would go to one of the more famous German universities and study law, still in preparation for a career in government. The problem was that young Tyge (he took the name Tycho upon graduation) was not interested in law. An event that took place on August 21, 1560, when he was nearly fourteen, came to fascinate him so deeply that it, in effect, determined his choice of career. He heard that an eclipse of the sun had been predicted for that day. The fact that the prediction proved to be correct and that the sun was indeed eclipsed seemed to him divine.
It was not considered good form for a man of Brahe’s social station to become a mere scientist, and his fascination with astronomy was greeted with far less than enthusiasm by his uncle and father. His astronomical studies were performed in secrecy and at night. When he went to Germany, a tutor accompanied him to ensure that he did not stray from his legal studies. The two arrived in Leipzig in 1562, when Brahe was not quite sixteen. Anders Sørensen Vedel, the tutor, kept a rapt eye on his charge, and Brahe studied law by day and reserved his nights for gazing at the stars. He also managed to study mathematics, which would be necessary for him in his further astronomical studies, and he met two of the more famous astronomers of his day, who happened to reside in Leipzig—Bartholomaeus Scultetus and Valentin Thau. The instruments he used for his observations were quite crude: a globe, a compass, and a radius.
The tutor eventually became aware of his charge’s illicit nightly activities, and the two of them were called home to be under Jørgen Brahe’s intense scrutiny. Yet Jørgen died not long afterward, leaving the nineteen-year-old Brahe a wealthy and independent man. Brahe could embark on his life’s work. For a while, out of a sense of duty, he performed his responsibilities as a nobleman and oversaw the Tostrup estate in Scania which was part of his inheritance. In 1566, however, he decided to make his scientific studies the center of his life and activities. To the accompaniment of his family’s scorn, Brahe moved to Wittenberg and worked with Kaspar Peucer, a then-famous astronomer, until an outbreak of the plague forced his return to Denmark. Later, he went to Augsburg because of its famous instrument makers; he wanted new, more precise, better designed instruments made for his observations. He had a new globe, sextant, and radius made. His fame in the scientific community began to grow.
Brahe concentrated his early studies on the apparent movements of the planets and the fixed stars. His father’s death and an appointment as cantor of the Roskilde Cathedral devoured much of his time, but he steadfastly continued his work. His growing fame changed the attitudes of his family and peers toward his work: His uncle Steen Brahe had a lab outfitted for him. His first major breakthrough was the observation of a new star, first seen on November 11, 1572. The star, which he appropriately called Stella Nova in a book entitled De nova et nullius aevi memoria prius visa stella (1573; about the new star), appeared in the Cassiopeia constellation. Large and bright, the new star remained visible until 1574. The accuracy of the observations, down to the minute details, caused a sensation in the scientific community, and Brahe was established as a great scholar.
Brahe, by now a grown man, cut quite a striking figure. Bejeweled and flamboyantly dressed, he was stocky, with reddish-yellow hair combed forward to hide incipient baldness, and he sported a pointed beard and a flowing mustache. When he was a young man in...
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