Tycho Brahe: Discoveries, Facts & Contributions to Astronomy Video

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  • 0:00 Who Was Tycho Brahe?
  • 1:48 On the Island of Hveen
  • 3:37 Brahe's Most Famous Student
  • 4:57 Brahe's Impact
  • 5:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Bowles

Mark has taught, designed, and written textbooks for university history courses. He has a Ph.D. in history.

Understand Tycho Brahe's contributions to astronomy during the Scientific Revolution, his life on the Island of Hveen, his relationship with Kepler, and his mysterious death.

Who Was Tycho Brahe?

During a period of time loosely known as The Scientific Revolution, when modern science came of age (1550-1700), a few critical thinkers were responsible for transforming our understanding of the cosmos. At the time, people believed in a geocentric model of the universe with the earth at the center. Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) was a Danish nobleman and astronomer, and he was one of the individuals whose work helped overturn that belief in favor of a heliocentric model of the universe, with the sun at the center.

What is remarkable is that, despite Brahe's astronomical observations that eventually helped to prove this, he personally believed that the earth was motionless and at the center of our universe.

Coming from a wealthy family, Brahe had the freedom to devote his life to the study of the cosmos. He had a great passion for life, was an extrovert in social situations, and was a great lover of food and wine. He famously lost part of his nose in a sword duel with his third cousin, Manderup Parsberg. The reason for the fight? A disagreement over a mathematical formula. To compensate for his disfigurement, he wore a prosthetic nose made of precious metals glued to his face.

The Danish king knew of Brahe's interest in the stars, and so he gave him the Island of Hveen to carry out his work. It was there that Brahe hired many people to build advanced astronomical instruments and carry out observations on the heavens.

Brahe also provided opportunities for his family to participate in his astronomical pursuits. Most notably was his sister, Sofia, who assisted with instrument making, illustrations, and astronomical observation. It was highly unusual for women to be involved in the male-dominated scientific profession, yet Brahe enabled an important opportunity for his sister to demonstrate her skills.

On the Island of Hveen

Brahe believed his island was a magical place whose inhabitants (himself especially) were gods that walked the earth. The image of the divine was reflected in the Temple of Urania, which was the building where all of his astronomers worked. Brahe built other structures on the island, including an observatory, an administrative center, a grand residence, and an alchemical laboratory.

You might think that a telescope would be the prominent scientific instrument used on the island, but it was not. The first person to make practical use of the telescope was Galileo Galilei in 1609, which was eight years after Brahe's death. Brahe was extremely limited in his view of the universe, and his observations relied on what he could see with the naked eye.

However, Brahe was able to construct instruments which aided these observations. The armillary spheres (also known as a spherical astrolabe) were able to physically represent a model of the sky, enabling him to develop celestial maps of planetary movement.

With instruments like these, Brahe and his team made some of the most accurate observations of the moon, planets, and stars in history. He created detailed mathematical tables that astronomers used for centuries. Brahe also correctly established the positions of 1,000 fixed stars. In 1588, he published his book Introduction to the New Astronomy, which included observations of comets and his system of the world.

Brahe remained a believer in geocentrism, and all of his models of the solar system placed the earth at its center, with the other planets and Sun revolving around it. In order to help prove that geocentrism was correct, Brahe extended an offer to German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) to join him on his island. This offer may have cost Brahe his life.

Brahe's Most Famous Student

From the start, Brahe and Kepler's relationship was contentious. In fact, some have today called it the most argumentative in all the history of science. The two could not have been more different, both personally and professionally. Brahe was a nobleman, and Kepler was from a family who barely had enough money to eat. Brahe was friends with a king; Kepler's mother was tried for witchcraft, and his aunt was actually burned at the stake as a witch. The most significant difference, though, was their vision of the solar system. Kepler was convinced the Sun was the center.

The working relationship between Brahe and Kepler lasted just 18 months until Brahe's unexplained death. He was 54 years old at the time and in very good health. Just before his passing, and despite their differences, Brahe willed all of his equipment and work to Kepler. Shortly thereafter, he died.

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