www.whyville.net Feb 3, 2000 Weekly Issue

Tycho Brahe

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     Have you noticed that the streets of Myville Old Town are all named after famous scientists and artists from the Renaissance? In case these folks aren´t so famous to you, you might want to follow along this series of articles, and get to know the person on whose street you´re living. This week´s article is about Tycho Brahe, who is one of the greatest astronomers before the invention of the telescope.

by Lois Lee
Times Staff

Tycho Brahe
1546 - 1601

Believe it or not, Whyville might have helped Tycho Brahe, had he been a resident. How do I mean? Read on...

Tycho Brahe was born on December 14, 1546 in Knudstrup, Denmark. At age 13 (!), he was sent to the University of Copenhagen and then to Leipzig to study law. However, after seeing an eclipse of the sun on August 21, 1560, he became fascinated by the stars, and turned his studies to astronomy. He mission was to study the exact positions of planets in the sky and to chart their locations compared to the stars in the sky.

In 1565, while studying mathematics (part of his astronomy studies) at the universities in Rostock, Tycho challenged another student to a duel with swords during an argument over who was the better mathematician. Tycho´s nose was partially cut off, and he was said to have worn a gold and silver replacement piece upon which he would continually rub oil. If he had been a Whyvillian, he could've just visited Akbar's.

Tycho Brahe and his signature
Not all of Tycho´s time was spent causing trouble. His big break in astronomy occurred on November 11, 1572, when he looked into the sky and saw an extra star in the constellation of Cassiopeia. He instantly summoned his assistant to confirm that the star really was there. This "star" appeared and was visible for about 18 months before fading from view. He was not the first to see the new star (we know now that this was really a supernova, which is an exploding star, not a new star), but Tycho´s observations showed that the supernovae stayed still with respect to the other stars. Though everybody believed that the heavens did not change, he now had evidence that contradicted this.

On May 23, 1576, by royal decree, the Danish King Frederick II gave Tycho the island of Hven, east of Copenhagen, as well as money, to allow Tycho to carry out his astronomical research. Tycho took full advantage of his independence and financial security and built the Uraniborg Observatory on this island.

From his observatory, Tycho studied the planets and the sun by comparing their locations against the rest of the stars. In 1577, he observed a comet, which he determined was further away than the moon. This went against the ideas of the times, which was that a comet was something weird that occurred in the earth´s atmosphere, and provided more evidence that the heavens did indeed change.

After making observations from his island observatory for twenty more years, Tycho proposed his own model of the Solar System that was an intermediate between the two models that were being argued over.

The first model (Ptolemaic) argued that the earth was the center of the universe. The second model (Copernicus) argued that the sun was at the center of our universe, and that the planets rotated around the sun.

(For more information on this, read Dr. Leila's article in her series on the Sun.)

Tycho thought that the earth was at the center of the universe. It proved to be wrong, but it was the most widely accepted model of the Solar System for a while. His observations were very accurate for the time, but he drew the wrong conclusions from them because he failed to believe his own calculations.

Not everybody liked Tycho´s ideas. They were radical for the time and, eventually, this caused him trouble. After arguing with a new king, Tycho closed down his observatory to look for a new source of financial support. In 1599, he was appointed Imperial Mathematician to the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, in Prague. Johannes Kepler joined him as an assistant to help with mathematical calculations. However, his astronomical research program never really got started again.

Tycho died in Prague on October 14, 1601, supposedly of a urinary infection that he got while attending a banquet hosted by a baron in Prague. The story was that he drank way too much, but felt that table manners prevented him from leaving the table to go to the bathroom before the host left.

Tycho´s conclusions about his data were not always correct, but the quality of the observations themselves were important to the development of modern astronomy. After Tycho died, Kepler used Tycho's observations to prove that the planets went around the sun, constructing our present model of the Solar System.

Click here and here to learn more about Tycho Brahe.


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