Tycho Brahe: A wonderful life!

Tycho Brahe was a person to whom we should be highly grateful. He was the first astronomer to locate many of the nearby stars with utmost precision, in the 16th century, without the help of a telescope! 

Tycho Brahe

At the age of 14, Tycho witnessed a solar eclipse. He was fascinated, though not by the phenomenon as much as he was, to see it occurring right when it was predicted. This piqued his interest in astronomy. But unfortunately, he was made to study law, following his uncle’s wishes. Knowing his interest, the night skies kept him awake, the star-studded celestial sphere satisfying his curious mind. His teachers encouraged him and helped him plot the positions of stars on a globe.

 A year later, he was sent to Leipzig to complete his study to become a civil servant by his uncle. Being away gave him the opportunity to dedicate time to the subject he truly desired to learn. 

Jupiter Saturn Conjunction
Jupiter Saturn Conjunction

In 1563, Tycho observed the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. He noticed that according to the data from Ptolemaic and Copernican tables, the data used for this prediction was flawed. It was several days off. This stirred in him the need to correct the tables and provide accurate data himself. This event led him to devote his life to identifying locations of the majestic structures in the space above him. We should not forget the instruments he used, a compass and a sextant. (Telescopes were first pointed in the sky by Galileo Galilei in 1609, years after Tycho’s death.)

A sextant
A sextant

A sextant is used to determine the position of celestial objects. It measures the angle between the horizon and the body, giving its latitude and longitude. The data was remarkably perfect. It also resulted in him devising a catalog in the process. By 1595, he had tracked and inscribed 1000 accurately observed stars on a globe. His noteworthy observations have been essential in scientific research. 

Tycho seemed to believe some parts of the Copernican theory of a heliocentric solar system, but he was not totally convinced by the same as he considered Aristotle’s geocentric theory, which was the foundation of all astrophysics. Hence, not being content with either of their postulates, he formulated the geo-heliocentric system. According to him, the sun and the earth revolved around one another, while the rest of the planets revolved around the sun. However, this theory was soon dismissed.  

The most important episode in the scientific life of this astronomer is the “1572 supernova”. As the name suggests, in the year 1572, while observing the heavens, he saw a smudge in the sky, in the constellation of Cassiopeia, which wasn’t seen earlier. He considered it to be the appearance of a new star. Although, we now know that as opposed to Tycho’s belief, that it actually indicated the death of a star.

It was believed that the universe beyond the moon was stable. Therefore, the “formation of a new star” evoked questions and uncertainty. Many believed that it was present in the region below the moon. Tycho didn’t agree as the object did not show daily parallax with respect to the background of other stars. (Parallax is the difference in the apparent position of an object, changing with respect to the observer’s point of view.) Hence, he concluded it to be a star further away. This discovery made him renowned in Europe. 

Tycho, although being one of the great astronomers, was not great at duels and one of the most striking features of Tycho was a result of a duel itself. He landed himself in a heated duel with his third cousin- Manderup Parsberg, over a math equation! It ended with Tycho losing a nose. He was said to sport a prosthetic nose made up of gold or other worthy metals which was disproved later on. 

Artificial nose

In the year 1600, Tycho met Johannes Kepler and decided to keep him as his assistant. Tycho had noted all of his observations without proper calculation, while Kepler worked with numbers and testing data. Tycho’s data would have not been of any use if Kepler hadn’t provided the reason or calculations of those measurements. Similarly, Kepler’s ideas about planetary motion would not have been concrete without Tycho’s positions to compare with. Each of them was integral in their role. 

Along with Kepler, they made an important stepping-stone in the field of science. Unfortunately, they could not work a good amount of time together, as Tycho died a year later he met him. The cause of death is said to be kidney failure and in order to confirm, he was exhumed twice (for research purposes). The exhumation also revealed his brass-made prosthetic nose! Being a fundamental part of science history, one of the biggest craters on the moon is named after Tycho Brahe!

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