Date: December 14, 2009
Title: Tycho Brahe
Podcaster: John McFarland
Description: Every school child knows about Copernicus and Galileo but very few have ever heard of Tycho Brahe. Tycho was born in Denmark in 1546 a few years after Copernicus’ death and was the most famous astronomer in Europe between 1574 and 1601. The astronomy instruments he built and used were far superior to any others during this time and they produced the most accurate star positions anyone had seen. Tycho’s legacy was his data and without it Johannes Kepler would probably never have discovered his laws of planetary motion. Tycho is a larger than life character that you will enjoy discovering.
Bio: John McFarland is a retired school teacher living in Charleston, South Carolina. He is president and founder of the Johannes Kepler Project and splits his time between speaking to students about the Founders of Modern Astronomy as Johannes Kepler and speaking to teachers about astronomy resources and activities. Learn more at www.Johanneskepler.org.
Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Loch Ness Productions, a unique multimedia production company specializing in cosmically creative content and space music for planetarium and fulldome theaters worldwide. Loch Ness Productions also works with exhibit designers, observatories, science institutions and publishers to bring a love of astronomy, Earth science, and space science to audiences everywhere. On the web at LochNessProductions.com.
Air Date: Dec 14, 2009
Title: Tycho Brahe
Podcast author: John McFarland
Length of Podcast: 8 minutes
Hello, I would like to tell you about a very unique and interesting astronomer, Tycho Brahe. Let’s first deal with the issue of how to pronounce Tycho Brahe’s name. Tycho’s Danish name at birth was “teeguh Brah”. Tyge Latinized his name when he was a young man to T-Y-C-H-O B-R-A-H-E. Pronounced in Danish it’s “tee Koh Brah ”. Every language pronounces this differently, for instance in Latin it is “tee Koh Bra Hay” and in German it’s pronounced “two Show Brah”. For the remainder of this article I will use the English version “tahy koh Brahe”. I personally don’t think the pronunciation is that important. What counts is that we are able to recognize the man and appreciate his contributions to modern astronomy.
Tycho Brahe was born in Denmark on Dec 14, 1546. Not only were his parents of noble birth but they were two of the most influential families in Denmark. Young Tycho’s upbringing was typical for a member of the nobility and he no doubt enjoyed a privileged lifestyle with the expectation that he would follow in the footsteps of his family and become a trusted advisor or military leader to the king of Denmark. Initially this was the path taken by young Tycho. He received a Latin education and then entered the university to study law. However, when he was a teenager he viewed an eclipse and this set him on a very different path. Tycho was fascinated that such a seemingly random event like an eclipse could be predicted years in advance. He began his study of astronomy while continuing to study law and eventually concentrated only on astronomy. He learned as much astronomy as he could but discovered that the star charts of the leading astronomers did not agree. He knew that better charts were necessary and was determined to make the most accurate star charts possible. Quite a goal for a sixteen year old and this goal was the driving force of Brahe’s life.
I consider Tycho Brahe one of the five founders on modern astronomy along with Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton. He was a well know advocate of science and a skilled and knowledgeable astronomer. For instance, in 1572 he discovered a new star in the heavens and wrote a book about its appearance and subsequent disappearance and proved that this new star was not near the earth but quite far away, near the other stars. This was revolutionary because everyone had been taught since Aristotle’s time that the firmament was perfect and unchanging. Today we know that Tycho actually saw a supernova and we have identified and photographed the remnants of Tycho’s “star”. Tycho also studied the comet of 1577 and proved that the comet was beyond the moon and Venus. This was very different from the accepted view that comets were very near the earth. Tycho’s astronomy measurements were very accurate and advanced for the late 16th century. For the last few years of Tycho’s life he moved to Prague to become the Imperial mathematical to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. The emperor hired Tycho to write his personal horoscopes and to determine more accurate planetary positions so the emperor could have a more precise horoscope. So, in this instance it was astrology that pushed astronomy forward.
In addition, Tycho do one other thing that links him to the founders of modern astronomy. In 1600 he hired a 28 year old German school teacher from Austria, Johannes Kepler, to help him solve a problem that had puzzled the best astronomers for over 1,000 years. Why was it so hard to calculate the past or future positions of the planets? Tycho died in the fall of 1601 and did not live to see Kepler solve the puzzle of planetary motion but it probably wouldn’t have happened without Tycho’s precise observations, which were the result of his life’s work.
Tycho was a brilliant man but in one area of astronomy he was very wrong. He was not a Copernican meaning he did not believe in a sun centered world. He believed that the center of all celestial motion was the earth and envisioned a unique but incorrect model of the solar system. But in Tycho’s defense he was not the only founder of modern astronomy to make a small mistake. For instance Copernicus thought the planets orbited the sun in perfect circles but we now know that planetary orbits are elliptical. Galileo also made a mistake or two, he though the ocean tides were caused by the spinning of the earth when in fact the tides are caused by the moon’s gravity.
Finally, I would like to play a history speculation game of “what if”. What if Tycho had lived another 10 years and died in 1611 instead of 1601. He would have lived to see Kepler solve the problem of planetary motion. The book on planetary motion, elliptical orbits and the like, would have been published in 1605 or sooner and the author would have been Tycho Brahe with help from Johannes Kepler. Tycho would have cast aside his incorrect model of the solar system and toured Europe telling everyone that he had solved the problem of planetary motion and he, Tycho Brahe, had proven that the Copernican Model was correct . He would have become an ardent and powerful supporter of the sun centered model of the solar system. As Tycho’s assistant, Kepler would have received far less credit and Galileo’s discoveries would have been muted by Tycho’s position and notoriety. The Catholic church would have been forced to modify their long held positions and there would have been no reason to punish Galileo. Tycho’s story would be known by all school children and he would be as famous as Copernicus and Newton. Alas, this is only a game of speculation because Tycho died in 1601 before Kepler was able to solve the puzzle of planetary motion, but I am sure that if Tycho had been alive he would have become a firm supporter of the Copernican model. He may have been a bit overbearing and a difficult man to work for but he was at home in the halls of many European courts and he was a brilliant and talented astronomer with a curious nature and an open mind.
If you are familiar with Tycho Brahe’s story you may be wondering why I neglected to mention one extraneous but interesting fact related to Tycho’s time at the University of Rostock. Let’s just say that Tycho was a most unique and interesting character and I can assure you that the story of the man with the golden nose is worth sniffing out.
My name is John McFarland and my website is www.johanneskepler.org.
End of podcast:
365 Days of Astronomy
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