The last major naked eye astronomer - Tycho Brahe

14 December 1546, Tycho Brahe, the last major naked eye astronomer, astrologer and alchemist, was born in Knutsdorp Castle, now in southern Sweden, then a part of Denmark.

“The star was at first like Venus and Jupiter, giving pleasing effects; but as it then became like Mars, there will next come a period of wars, seditions, captivity and death of princes, and destruction of cities, together with dryness and fiery meteors in the air, pestilence, and venomous snakes. Lastly, the star became like Saturn, and there will finally come a time of want, death, imprisonment and all sorts of sad things.“ (Tycho Brahe’s observation of a supernova in 1572)

The Austrian history painter Eduard Ender’s imagination of Tycho Brahe, demonstrating his “Tychonic System” to Emperor Rudolf II in Prague (1855)

In the twilight of the Renaissance, the birth pangs of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment and the infancy of the modern era, several currents of mapping the known and the unknown, perception and conjecture and belief collided, overlapped and amalgamated until Descartes, Galileo, Newton and Leibniz eventually transformed them into what we know as “scientific method”. While many fundamental assumptions of 16th scholars were shaped along the lines of religious beliefs, the knowledge of antiquity and sciences treated today quite like awkward parents, alchemy, astrology and Hermetic magick, basic methods were already there, such as measuring as exact as possible, continuous verification of methods and extensive documentation of observations. And even if such oddities like the Tychonic system came of it, a “geo-heliocentric” system with the sun and moon orbiting the earth but the planets gyrating around the sun, it was the fundament for modern science.

The universe according to Tycho Brahe - Andreas Cellarius: Harmonia macrocosmica seu atlas universalis et novus, totius universi creati cosmographiam generalem, et novam exhibens (1708)

It’s not without irony that the Tychonic system is remembered in modern astronomy only for its first record of orbital eccentricities, since its author was a bit of an eccentric, even by 16th century standards. Besides building the greatest observatory of its day, Uranienborg, along with the underground facility of Stjerneborg, on an island in the Øresund, the last of its kind without a telescope and writing several groundbreaking treatises on the subject, Tycho lost his nose in a duel over the legitimacy of a mathematical formula with a fellow Danish student in Rostock and wore one made probably made of brass for the rest of his life, or gold and silver for special occasions, and kept a pet elk that died falling down the stairs, stinko paralytico, after a surfeit of beer. Unusual for the day, but not unheard of, was the cooperation and collaboration of Tycho with his sister Sophie at Uranienborg, the sibling giving valuable input on her brother’s astronomical work, while she herself studied medicine and horticulture and finally married an alchemist to be dearly missed by her brother. A servant of Tycho and later student of Sophie, a lady aptly named Live Larsdatter, was rumoured to be 123 years old when she and her birth certificate were portrayed in 1691 by Pieter van Hulst.

Pieter van der Hulst's (1651 - 1721) portrait of the redoubtable Live Larsdatter (1691)

After the death of his supporter King Frederick II of Denmark, Tycho fell from grace and moved to Prague to become court mathematician of Emperor Rudolf II. The illustrious prince was a political catastrophe but a keen patron of the arts and sciences and quite the alchemist himself. Rudolf gave Prague the mythical reputation it has ever since, from golems to Kepler. Tycho met his scientific successor there, Kepler became his assistant and used the material assembled by his former master to formulate his three laws of planetary motion. Tycho, a bit sickly in his early fifties, died shortly after a banquet given by Rudolf, probably from the consequences of uremia, since he refused to leave the table to powder his nose. There is, naturally, the rumour that Kepler had poisoned him to take his place, but Tycho had at least time to write his own epitaph: "He lived like a sage and died like a fool".

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