• How Tycho Brahe Discovered a New Star with a Piece of String

    On the Ambition of the Early Naked-Eye Astronomers

    For years there was darkness. No comet raged in the sky. No further fire swallowed up Europe. As many as could be hoped, which is not many at all, read Copernicus’s On the Revolutions. Copies bled across the continent and into England. Non-astronomers heard about it. They laughed. They disagreed. They quit thinking about it and went to bed. And then there was light.

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    In November 1572, stargazers all the world over looked up and saw something new. A supernova. To them it looked a star, a new star, a day star, a space dragon, blazing in the heavens alone with the Sun, brighter than Venus in the night, usurping the throne of the princess, constellation Cassiopeia. Four hundred years later, it had changed everything. None understood what this new star meant, especially once it began to fade.

    The Chinese grasped the matter best; they had previously recorded the appearance of “guest-stars,” though still held them as portents, which caused their emperor a great deal of worry. “It was as large as a lamp,” their astronomers wrote, “seen before sunset, pointed rays of light streaming out in all directions.” For a short while longer, this civilization remained almost entirely foreign.

    European astronomy was in greater disrepair. Its forefather Aristotle had proposed the heavens were changeless and eternal, and thus caused by some changeless and eternal being. But, here, now: if there was no parallax in this new star, then it must lay in the heavens; if it lay in the heavens, then the heavens admitted change; if the heavens admitted change, then Aristotle’s physics, and metaphysics, must be revised. Revision, in its turn, entices more active minds to wholesale replacement. The philosophical bedrock of all known astronomy became a quivering line of dominoes, waiting for a reckless child.

    The new star did not have a visible parallax. A talented astronomer needed little more than his wits to prove this, and two young Europeans took this incredible event as a chance to announce their wits to the world.

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    Having just graduated, at 22 years of age, with thoughts split between being a teacher or a priest, the German Michael Maestlin proved the new star had no parallax using a simple piece of string. By stretching the thread between two fixed stars that sat on a line with this new one, he could see over time that none of the stars moved off the line. “The truth is brought out by accurate observations,” he wrote, “this prodigious star is no meteor, no planet, but numbers among the fixed stars”; “As for what this bodes, I leave that to others.” Thrown into a state of philosophical anxiety, Maestlin reviewed his copy of On the Revolutions, acquired two years earlier, where he uncovered a trail to solace. “I agree with Copernicus,” he scribbled in the margin, unaware of what a rare triumph this comment was.

    In college, a vibrant Dane by the name of Tycho Brahe had begun his lifetime of observations using the same method. Still, both young men acknowledged that a piece of string was inadequate for their ultimate desire: nothing less than a complete restoration of astronomy. “Restoration” was a word Tycho threw around a lot after this new star, but he could never really define what it meant. To him astronomy needed to be “restored,” “reformed,” “renovated,” “reparated,” “rejuvenated,” “redintegrated,” and whatever else sounded right from the “re-” section of his dictionary. If these words had any practical meaning, which can be doubted, it was to make astronomy “without assumptions,” as Tycho wrote, with new assertions resting on better observations than Aristotle’s philosophies had used. But what such a new astronomy would be was yet unclear.

    More than anything these words were emotional, aspirational, a new language for talking about an old scientific pursuit. They were poetry. Tycho loved poetry. He wrote it constantly. His favorite poet was Ovid, who sang of metamorphoses and shocking transformations. For obvious reasons, these themes were most popular with Lutherans. To them, the past might not only grow but burn, and from the ashes would arise, they believed, a “Phoenix of Astronomers.” “This almost collapsed science will be greatly amplified in its new splendor,” wrote Lutheran Maestlin in his ephemeris, but if the task could belong to one man, Lutheran Tycho would have claimed it. His thousand-page monster, Prelude to a Restored Astronomy, would not finish publication in his lifetime.

    Whatever restoration meant, it was obstructed by as many mental blockades as practical ones. Inherited beliefs can play tricks on the mind, as Tycho knew. Of the new star, he wrote:

    It happened just before supper . . . in the middle of my walk back home, I was contemplating different bits of the sky. It seemed to me then most clear, as from a wish to guarantee continued observations after supper; when lo and behold! Just overhead, a strange kind of star from an unexpected place, blinding the eyes and shining brilliant, radiant, fulgent light. I was amazed, practically stupefied, thrown into such perplexity by the impossibility of it all that I began to doubt my own eyes.

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    Tycho gaped at his traveling companions, astonished, until his dry mouth could form the obvious question. They all replied in a faithful chorus, “It is glorious!” Still he could not believe. Like a madman, he began to screech at the nearest carriage and poke at the sky. The peasants inside looked up, then screeched back: Real, you noising fool, real, it was real! “Finally,” he concluded, after a chance to calm, “certain my vision had not deceived me, I marveled that the heavens had summoned up some new phenomenon. It demanded to be compared. Immediately readying my tool, I attacked.”

    Christ did not arise, but another man did. Today, this new star is known as “Tycho Brahe’s Nova.”

    Aged 25, all young Tycho had yet made was a T-shaped stick about five feet long, called a cross-staff, which could be swung up to the eye to measure the angular distance between stars, and a handheld joint of wood, which he had named the sextant, for the same purpose. With this simple sextant, he took unusually detailed observations of the new star, as he mentioned with pride, “noting very carefully its size, form, color, and other visible aspects.”

    There were far more commentaries on the star, even from Tycho alone. The Lutheran offered up an unsubtle prophecy, that certain unnamed “religions which have a jovial splendor and pomp will fade, if they do not die completely, just as this fake star did.” There shall then come “a great light, which will slowly swallow the darkness, just as does the Sun over the course of spring.” Some theologians proved even less reserved. It is as the Star of Bethlehem, they said, let us ready for the second coming of Christ.

    Christ did not arise, but another man did. Today, this new star is known as “Tycho Brahe’s Nova.” It has long since vanished from the heavens, but its impact upon the world remains. “God will come shortly,” predicted one eminent Oxford scholar, “and consume all with fire.” Of course, to a great deal of the young, old, and poor, whose stories are not yet told, this star meant very little. The nine-year-old Galileo Galilei, though perceptive beyond his years, gave it not a thought. The baby Johannes Kepler, not even a year old, could not have cared for this Christmas star. Of a comet five years later, he reported only that he heard of it often and that, despite his physical frailty and his father’s abandonment, his tired mother carried him to some hilltop one night to watch.


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    A few months after the fact, Tycho was dining in Copenhagen with a wealthy French ambassador and a doctor of medicine when he was alarmed to discover that neither of them were aware of the new star; indeed, hardly a Dane in the country was talking about it. When confronted, the host ambassador thought it was a bad joke. Tycho smiled and said he hoped for a clear night.

    To their credit, when the two realized their mistake, they urged Tycho to publish his writings, which would become his first book, On the New Star. But they must have found his astronomical approach—one of always looking, validating, measuring—very curious in a culture that had for centuries celebrated inner contemplation. It was more than curious, in fact, for it must always be remembered how discordant it is to live, see, and think unlike others; it is terribly, irrefutably, irrepressibly strange. Tycho was branded with strangeness before he could have chosen it. Firstborn son of a high-ranking noble lineage, birthed in 1546 with a stillborn twin, he was stolen, as he said all too coolly, “without the knowledge of my parents,” by an uncle and aunt who could not bear children. Out of love for their brother, Tycho’s parents acquiesced to this impromptu adoption after the birth of their second son.

    This different set of parents did nothing to change Tycho’s class. He was not only a noble but an aristocrat, the kind of rare noble who rubbed elbows with royalty. Aristocratic children were raised, in word and action, under the assumption that they were better than everyone else. Denmark was the first declared Lutheran kingdom; every Danish noblechild was reared in the Lutheran way, nationalistic, independent of a universal church, all the way up to King Frederick II. This novel combination of aristocratic pretension and Protestant individualism provided wealthy Danish youths with an easy path to self-doubt, and they were always demanding constant reaffirmation of their own magnificence. There was no ethnicity of noble more industrious, extravagant, vainglorious, and uncertain of itself than the unhappy Dane.

    Tycho was, in this regard, most definitely a typical aristocrat. But rather than situating himself within the extensive courtly rituals and social faux pas of a large and noble family, to share his inheritance with his siblings, he was raised in splendid isolation by a boorish uncle and his coy wife and would receive a similarly large inheritance all his own. His adopters loved him all the more, being their only child, and tended specially to the needs of their one very weird son, but this opening act of the family romance was already on the wane. By the age of twelve, Tycho became the first Brahe to attend university.

    At Copenhagen, the usual student was 18, but it was all a matter of upbringing. Some children as young as eight enjoyed a college education, and occasionally grown men of peasant stock had the gall to try to improve themselves. Tycho was of the highest class; he ate up knowledge until he grew sick of the local flavor three years later. Shifting to Leipzig, his foster parents hired a student a few years his superior to carefully engineer his studies. This warden had a knack for putting things bluntly. He diagnosed the Danish condition with such clinical force that it was painful.

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    When a Dane comes up in the world, people in many places, even Europe, are inclined to think that they are hearing talk about the New World. There are even people who have heard or read a little about Denmark, but who are, nonetheless, of the opinion that we are a stupid, unlettered, barbarian nation, unacquainted with art and good order. Tycho knew good order, but he would have to learn stridency and willfulness, if he was to get respect. In boyhood, he had spent his days roughing up an almanac, enthralled by the stars. Now at university, he planned to audit astronomy classes, except that, he wrote, “my warden, pleading the wishes of my parents, did not like it and opposed it.” They wanted him to study law or another career befitting a privileged noble. “I had to buy and read astronomical books in secret,” Tycho remembered. “In a month I learned all the constellations in the sky. For this purpose I made use of a small celestial globe, no greater than a fist, which I used to take with me in the evening without mentioning it to anybody.”

    Soon the sneak got his hands on a cross-staff and initiated what would become a 35-year streak of consistent observation. These first attempts, he had to concede, were “childish and of doubtful value,” but they were still enough for him to recognize inaccuracies in astronomical observation he felt to be grievous. He designed improvements. A millennia and a half of learned instrument making and theorizing was not, apparently, anything a headstrong teenager thought beyond his own measure. That teenager was not so for long, abandoning Leipzig at 21. “The M.A. degree is immaterial to me,” he would reflect years later, “I would prefer that one really be a master of arts.” Rather than be passively educated, he decided to travel the world.

    When Tycho’s dear foster father died saving King Frederick from drowning in a lake, Tycho felt obliged to return to Denmark for a spell to bond with his birth family. This did not go well; hardly any nobles approved of a career in astronomy, but the hardhead was set. Few of his brothers and sisters were even present, but the youngest, little six-year-old Sophie, was. Despite his ignoble quirks, to the tiny girl he soon became “the good brother.” Tycho drew closer to her as he realized that no grown member of his family liked him. They gave him no reason to stay in Denmark. Dismal meditations on expatriation raced around his mind.

    There was a flash of steel in the night; a patch of Tycho hit the ground, and a red river ran through his face.

    Such embittering thoughts kept with him through the frigid winter when, on tour of Germany, he got viciously drunk at a pub. He squawked, louder and louder, in a language almost no one could understand. One of those who could, a Danish drinking buddy, squawked back—they were, people guessed, arguing about math—and the two traded indignities until, worked into a silly rage, both foreigners stomped outside with their swords at the ready. All Tycho’s life he was acting in a duel, but only this once did it become literal.

    A local girl by the bar, being the only person in the room with the slightest bit of sense, instructed the men around her to go halt a likely death, but they were too late. There was a flash of steel in the night; a patch of Tycho hit the ground, and a red river ran through his face. He collapsed, defeated, but survived, for no reason other than that fortune can smile even on an idiot. Portraits of the blond mustachioed Dane are as tactful as honesty permitted, with most only alluding to a thin line carved around his face, but his disfigurement was ghastly.

    The rest of his life, Tycho wore a regal prosthetic of gold and silver atop his nose stump, fixed in place by an adhesive gel from a snuffbox he carried with him everywhere. His manly honor was preserved, but his manly face was ruined, and this, a friend of his suggested, “may conceivably have had something to do with the selection of the humble life-companion.” For returning to Denmark in 1571, he ruined himself further by taking up with a common preacher’s daughter, Kirsten. Then he took up with her again. And again. It was an amour polluted by caste, chivalry, and social expectation, none of which could overcome the cleansing powers of mutual lust and affection.

    Such a sincere relationship between classes was considered, at the time, to be like a physical deformity, rather rare, and quite as unbecoming. The two could not even legally marry. Though King Frederick was sympathetic, most of the Brahe line frowned further upon their black sheep boy, and could barely stomach his choice of partner. “Tycho’s harlot,” they would call her, partaking in “an evil life.” “I do not like this society,” Tycho shot back, “Its customs are rubbish. They always want more from me.” The appeal of peasant girls was that they could not ask for more.

    Of these two major life events, Tycho, by whatever exact mix of etiquette, egotism, and embarrassment he was burdened, did not much speak. His letters reveal a simple rule of verbal conduct: he would mention his girlfriend to no one, and no one would mention his noselessness to him. Such were the differing priorities between Tycho and the more normal nobility. Even neutral onlookers described Kirsten through a veil of dehumanizing contempt, “of an admirable and, to her husband, satisfying fecundity.” History would remember her better were she truly such an instrument; then, at least, Tycho could have dedicated to her a description as loving and detailed as he gave his own astronomical tools.

    A year before he met Kirsten, he told, he had found himself discussing his instrument designs outside of a local shoppe in Augsborg with two especially cultured friends, while scouring Germany for cities he might immigrate to. One of them, a wealthy alderman who “seemed addicted” to astronomy, leapt to underwrite the production of Tycho’s first serious invention, and offered up his backyard to host it. “With this we immediately switched from play to work,” Tycho wrote. He sketched out a picture of a quarter circle, the quadrant, an extreme revision of his toy sextant for measuring angular distance. It would be capable of unprecedented accuracy, down to a single arc minute, or sixtieth of a degree.

    In the days of naked-eye astronomy, there were a couple clever tricks that used free space on measuring instruments to increase accuracy, but such cleverness had limited returns. The most obvious, expensive, and aggravating solution was (and still is) to scale up.

    Tycho’s instrument was big. Very big. He called it The Great Quadrant, or quadrans maximus, permagnus. When he had calculated the proportional enlargement required by his obscene desire for precision, the result was over five meters in radius, supported by a fat, carved oak tree, held hovering above the ground by an even weightier frame. From all reports, it was a theoretical success, but a practical failure—a youthful blunder Tycho would never repeat. Forty grown housemen were pulled off duty to heave it across the soil to its final resting place, and more than a few were required in its daily operation. These first laborers serving Tycho’s scientific life could not have been pleased, pushing around this foolhardy piece of equipment on a frosty March day, stomping up a perfectly good garden. From here on out, Tycho’s intellectual fever would only quicken.

    Of his populous family, he managed to uncover a lone older relative, another uncle, who was vaguely supportive of his career in the sciences. He lived out two hermetic yet luxurious interim years at that uncle’s estate, an abandoned monastery in the southern tip of Sweden, occasionally circling back to Copenhagen to spend a night with his girlfriend Kirsten. That uncle had a happy hobby of alchemy, which Tycho found he enjoyed so much that he promptly quit astronomy and prepared to become a chemist.

    Then, at almost the exact moment that he impregnated Kirsten, the light of the supernova that would one day bear his name touched down upon Earth. He looked up, and his aspirations took a shuddering jump back into their old domain. “It was the greatest wonder that has ever shown itself in the whole of creation,” he wrote in ecstasy; though chemistry would always remain his secret second study, “the new star which flared up in 1572 made me give up my chemical labors and turn towards the study of celestial phenomena.” He left his uncle’s home to start a family with the mother of his child.

    Tycho was living out his truth, and he had a severed nose from a senseless duel, a common-law wife despised by his relatives, and a first book in the presses to show for it.

    During his investigations into the new star, he revisited the house of his parents, where he observed an eclipse with a most precocious assistant, “my lovely sister Sophia Brahe, then a maiden of about fourteen. She’s a charmer.” He made this note of her help publicly, in his first book, On the New Star, commenting how “many think it a travesty, that some descendants of a noble species should venture into this sublime science.” So discouraged was the outset of his career that he almost released the book under a pseudonym, but his friends in academia talked him out of it. Tycho affixed his name to his many intraclass quarrels as a matter of public record. On the New Star concluded with a poem decrying snobbish joys, the “raging cups of Bacchus,” “insane romance,” and “noble grandeur” of his fellows. Though, he conceded, he enjoyed these too, he believed the purest pleasures were found outside of the self.

    Happy on earth, happy beyond the heavens Is he who delights in the heavens before the earth. More than one scholar doted over this image of their “prince astronomer.” His presence glorified their profession, and all astronomers rose in social status by association. Most warmly supported the restoration of astronomy he was dreaming of, but few had similar resources or freedom to pursue it. Michael Maestlin, as example, would become a pen pal Tycho much enjoyed hearing from. Though a Copernican at heart, he had found his calling as a devote schoolteacher, whose frequently reprinted textbook was entirely Ptolemaic. As he justified it, “the familiar ancient hypotheses are retained for the young and, being easier to understand, are taught as correct, but all specialists as a body agree with Copernicus’s demonstrations.”

    Despite this concession, Maestlin was an earnest, hardworking man, who would later add a subtle passage to the appendix of his textbook explaining Copernican ideas. He argued vigorously over issues like calendar reform and, his more radical students professed, walked hand in hand in with pioneering science. But in the eternal coupling between education and discovery, he always graced the former.

    Tycho was, in contrast, not so certain about the Copernican system, though he gave its inventor an abnormal amount of praise. Nor was he a schoolteacher, though he did deign to guest lecture at the University of Copenhagen, a behavior other nobles judged to be unthinkably base. Maestlin wrote extensively, but his crowning work was his textbook. Tycho was more ambitious, to the point of hubris; he believed his crowning work would be a Theater of Astronomy, a massive ten-volume compilation of his modern thinking and practice, of which his planned, already massive Prelude to a Restored Astronomy would be only the first third.

    But he claimed that his desire to restore astronomy arose “not out of arrogance or in contempt of the ancients in any way, but because I am in harmony with the truth.” Tycho was living out his truth, and he had a severed nose from a senseless duel, a common-law wife despised by his relatives, and a first book in the presses to show for it. Lying awake one night on his bed in his old home, contemplating how to best properly emigrate from Denmark, he received a curious summons from Frederick, the king his foster father had given his life to save.

    “Because you have not even asked for the things that others covet and fight to get, I do not know what you are thinking,” the king confessed, “I suspect that you do not want to accept a great castle as a sign of royal favor because the studies you enjoy so much would be disturbed by the external affairs . . . I looked out of the windows, and I saw the little island of Hven . . .”


    heaven on earth

    From Heaven on Earth: How Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo Discovered the Modern World by L. S. Fauber. Used with the permission of Pegasus Books. Copyright © 2019 by L. S. Fauber.

    L. S. Fauber
    L. S. Fauber
    L. S. Fauber attended Bard College and is completing a PhD in Computer Science at University of California Riverside. L. S. teaches Computer Science and Physics and lives in Riverside, California.

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