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Tycho Brahe

Tycho Brahe, 1546-1601

Tycho Brahe, 1546-1601




Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), an eccentric from a rich Danish noble family, soon followed. Fascinated by astronomy but disappointed with the accuracy to which planetary positions were then known, he dedicated his life to recording planetary positions ten times more accurately than had ever been done before. This was brought within his grasp by the king of Denmark’s having given him a populated island and money to build an observatory out of gratitude for Tycho’s uncle having saved his life. (The king’s gift is estimated at 10% of Denmark’s then GNP!) On his island observatory/kingdom of Uraniborg Tycho built vast instruments with many clocks to take accurate sightings on stars, and particularly of Mars.

In 1572 Tycho saw a new star being born in the heavens. (Shown above are the remnants of that exploded star, a Type 1a supernova 7500 light years away; APOD March 17, 2009.) 32 years later his assistant Kepler, observed another supernova as well. These events were remarkable not only in their timing (the previous naked-eye supernova was observed in 1181 A.D. and the next is yet to be seen!), but also because they directly contradicted Aristotle, who said that all changes in the heavens must take place in the lunar sphere close to Earth, and that the distant sphere of fixed stars was inviolate and unchanging.

Tycho reasoned, as had Aristotle before him, that nearby stars would show a shift against background stars when viewed from opposite points in the Earth’s orbit IF the Earth revolved around the Sun. (Perhaps this will help you to visualize what parallax is. Imagine a tiny Earth orbit passing through your eyes, perpendicular to your face and to your spine, so that your eyes are located at two positions of the Earth in its orbit six months apart—such as the beginning of spring and the beginning of fall. Now hold a forefinger up at arm’s length and blink your eyes slowly, one after the other. The apparent shift of your forefinger against background objects is same as the shift of a nearby celestial object against more distant stars when viewed six months apart that we would expect to see if the Earth revolved around the Sun.) Because Tycho could not detect such a shift (stellar parallax) in any star, he rejected Copernicus’ heliocentric model. It never occurred to him that stars might be too far away to see a stellar parallax with the naked eye.

Tycho achieved his goal of measuring positions of heavenly bodies to within 1' of arc (the apparent diameter of Venus at closest approach or a quarter seen a football field away). This was a tremendous feat considering the first telescope was still decades in the future. His aim in all this had been to confirm his own picture of the universe: the Earth is at rest, the Sun and the Moon revolve about it, and that all the other planets revolve around the Sun—a concept halfway between those of Copernicus and Ptolemy. It had long been thought that Tycho died from holding his urine overlong after a count’s banquet, it then being courteous not to void before your host. But hair analysis in 1996 showed he probably died from Mercury poisoning from his own medicines taken a day before his death, rather than from a burst bladder.

In 1672 Giovanni Cassini used a parallax base line from Paris to Cayenne, French Guiana to measure the distance to Mars, and in so doing measured the Earth-Sun distance (1 AU) for the first time. Not until 1835, however, was the first accurate measurement of a star’s parallax obtained by Friedrich Bessel. With a parallax of 0.32 arc-seconds (1/11,000th of 1°), 61 Cygni’s parallax was almost 200 times below the threshold of Tycho Brahe’s ability to measure.

This Tycho Brahe page and much of this 600-page website are excerpted from the personalized Fine Art Book You and the Universe.


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