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TYCHO BRAHE (1546 - 1601)

Tycho Brahe was born in Knutstorp Castle in Scania (now in Sweden but part of Denmark in 1546). He was one of twin boys but his brother died not long after birth. His parents were part of the nobility and on good terms with the king. When he was two years old, Tycho was taken to live with his uncle, Jorgen Brahe, and his family. In 1552, his uncle's family moved to Vordingborg Castle and, at the age of six, Tycho started his education at the local cathedral school.

At the young age of thirteen Tycho was sent to Copenhagen University to study law and philosophy. These subjects were his uncle’s choice; Tycho very quickly developed an interest in astronomy, sparked by observing a solar eclipse on 21 August 1560. He continued his education at Leipzig University where he studied astronomy secretly. Tycho also attended the universities of Wittenburg, Rostock and Basel where he studied law, humanities and science. At the same time he was busy designing high precision astronomical instruments.

It was during his time in Rostock that he had an argument with another student about which of them was the best mathematician. This argument ended in a duel and Tycho suffered a badly injured nose during the fight. He covered the scar with a piece of a metal alloy (made of copper and silver so that it was near to the colour of his skin).

Tycho Brahe

Tycho Brahe
(Public Domain Image)

In 1570, Tycho returned to Scania after hearing that his father was very ill. His father died the following year and Tycho inherited the family property. He built an observatory and an alchemy (chemistry) laboratory in the grounds of the family estate. It was around this time that he met his life-time partner, Kirsten Jorgensdatter. The couple could not marry because he was a nobleman and she was a commoner. They lived together as common law man and wife, eventually adding eight children to their family.

Tycho Brahe spent twenty years studying the heavens. He catalogued 1000 stars and, in 1572, he identified a new star in the Cassiopeia constellation. He observed this star increasing in brightness and then fading over a period of one year. Tycho became famous all over Europe when he published a book, “De Stella Nova”, about his observations. By 1574 he was giving a course of lectures at Copenhagen University. His fame also brought him the support of King Fredrik II of Denmark who gave Tycho an island called Hven (now Van) situated between Denmark and Scania. Tycho built Uraniborg Castle, named after Urania, the goddess of the sky, and an observatory on the island.

Tycho’s observatory was visited by many astronomers and he trained many young astronomers how to observe accurately. He designed and built instruments that could take accurate measurements, taking care to calibrate them with precision. He also took the time to check their accuracy on a regular basis. Strangely enough, Tycho Brahe did not support the Copernicus’s heliocentric theory but at the same time he did not completely agree with Ptolemy that the Earth was orbited by the sun and the other planets. He made an attempt to combine the two; a sort of mid-way model that was popular at the time because it allowed astronomers to stay on the right side of the Catholic Church while moving away from the established geocentric theory.

In 1597 Tycho Brahe was forced to leave Denmark after a dispute with King Christian IV, the son of Fredrik II. Tycho first moved to Wandsbech, now in Germany but soon after, the King of Bohemia, Rudolph II, invited Tycho to take up the post of Imperial Mathematician. Tycho was also offered a pension and an estate near the city of Prague. He moved to Prague in 1599 and lived there until his death in 1601. A year before he died, Tycho hired an assistant, Johannes Kepler, who would use Tycho’s accurate observations on complete planetary orbits to establish his three laws of planetary motion.

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