Kepler/Chapter 3

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1684873Kepler — III. Tycho BraheWalter William Bryant



The age following that of Copernicus produced three outstanding figures associated with the science of astronomy, then reaching the close of what Professor Forbes so aptly styles the geometrical period. These three Sir David Brewster has termed "Martyrs of Science"; Galileo, the great Italian philosopher, has his own place among the "Pioneers of Science"; and invaluable though Tycho Brahe's work was, the latter can hardly be claimed as a pioneer in the same sense as the other two. Nevertheless, Kepler, the third member of the trio, could not have made his most valuable discoveries without Tycho's observations.

Of noble family, born a twin on 14th December, 1546, at Knudstrup in Scania (the southernmost part of Sweden, then forming part of the kingdom of Denmark), Tycho was kidnapped a year later by a childless uncle. This uncle brought him up as his own son, provided him at the age of seven with a tutor, and sent him in 1559 to the University of Copenhagen, to study for a political career by taking courses in rhetoric and philosophy. On 21st August, 1560, however, a solar eclipse took place, total in Portugal, and therefore of small proportions in Denmark, and Tycho's keen interest was awakened, not so much by the phenomenon, as by the fact that it had occurred according to prediction. Soon afterwards he purchased an edition of Ptolemy in order to read up the subject of astronomy, to which, and to mathematics, he devoted most of the remainder of his three years' course at Copenhagen. His uncle next sent him to Leipzig to study law, but he managed to continue his astronomical researches. He obtained the Alphonsine and the new Prutenic Tables, but soon found that the latter, though more accurate than the former, failed to represent the true positions of the planets, and grasped the fact that continuous observation was essential in order to determine the true motions. He began by observing a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in August, 1563, and found the Prutenic Tables several days in error, and the Alphonsine a whole month. He provided himself with a cross-staff for determining the angular distance between stars or other objects, and, finding the divisions of the scale inaccurate, constructed a table of corrections, an improvement that seems to have been a decided innovation, the previous practice having been to use the best available instrument and ignore its errors. About this time war broke out between Denmark and Sweden, and Tycho returned to his uncle, who was vice-admiral and attached to the king's suite. The uncle died in the following month, and early in the next year Tycho went abroad again, this time to Wittenberg. After five months, however, an outbreak of plague drove him away, and he matriculated at Rostock, where he found little astronomy but a good deal of astrology. While there he fought a duel in the dark and lost part of his nose, which he replaced by a composition of gold and silver. He carried on regular observations with his cross-staff and persevered with his astronomical studies in spite of the objections and want of sympathy of his fellow-countrymen. The King of Denmark, however, having a higher opinion of the value of science, promised Tycho the first canonry that should fall vacant in the cathedral chapter of Roskilde, so that he might be assured of an income while devoting himself to financially unproductive work. In 1568 Tycho left Rostock, and matriculated at Basle, but soon moved on to Augsburg, where he found more enthusiasm for astronomy, and induced one of his new friends to order the construction of a large 19-foot quadrant of heavy oak beams. This was the first of the series of great instruments associated with Tycho's name, and it remained in use for five years, being destroyed by a great storm in 1574. Tycho meanwhile had left Augsburg in 1570 and returned to live with his father, now governor of Helsingborg Castle, until the latter's death in the following year. Tycho then joined his mother's brother, Steen Bille, the only one of his relatives who showed any sympathy with his desire for a scientific career.

On 11th November, 1572, Tycho noticed an unfamiliar bright star in the constellation of Cassiopeia, and continued to observe it with a sextant. It was a very brilliant object, equal to Venus at its brightest for the rest of November, not falling below the first magnitude for another four months, and remaining visible for more than a year afterwards. Tycho wrote a little book on the new star, maintaining that it had practically no parallax, and therefore could not be, as some supposed, a comet. Deeming authorship beneath the dignity of a noble he was very reluctant to publish, but he was convinced of the importance of increasing the number and accuracy of observations, though he was by no means free from all the erroneous ideas of his time. The little book contained a certain amount of astrology, but Tycho evidently did not regard this as of very great importance. He adopted the view that the very rarity of the phenomenon of a new star must prevent the formulation and adoption of definite rules for determining its significance. We gather from lectures which he was persuaded to deliver at the University of Copenhagen that, though in agreement with the accepted canons of astrology as to the influence of planetary conjunctions and such phenomena on the course of human events, he did not consider the fate predicted by any one's horoscope to be unavoidable, but thought the great value of astrology lay in the warnings derived from such computations, which should enable the believer to avoid threatened calamities. In 1575 he left Denmark once more and made his way to Cassel, where he found a kindred spirit in the studious Landgrave, William IV. of Hesse, whose astronomical pursuits had been interrupted by his accession to the government of Hesse, in 1567. Tycho observed with him for some time, the two forming a firm friendship, and then visited successively Frankfort, Basle, and Venice, returning by way of Augsburg, Ratisbon, and Saalfeld to Wittenberg; on the way he acquired various astronomical manuscripts, made friends among practical astronomers, and examined new instruments. He seemed to have considered the advantages of the several places thus visited and decided on Basle, but on his return to Denmark to fetch his family with the object of transferring them to Basle, he found that his friend the Landgrave had written to King Frederick on his behalf, urging him to provide the means to enable Tycho to pursue his astronomical work, promising that not only should credit result for the king and for Denmark but that science itself would be greatly advanced. The ultimate result of this letter was that after refusing various offers, Tycho accepted from the king a grant of the small island of Hveen, in the Sound, with a guaranteed income, in addition to a large sum from the treasury for building an observatory on the island, far removed from the distractions of court life. Here Tycho built his celebrated observatory of Uraniborg and began observations in December, 1576, using the large instruments then found necessary in order to attain the accuracy of observation which within the next half-century was to be so greatly facilitated by the invention of the telescope. Here also he built several smaller observing rooms, so that his pupils should be able to observe independently. For more than twenty years he continued his observations at Uraniborg, surrounded by his family, and attracting numerous pupils. His constant aim was to accumulate a large store of observations of a high order of accuracy, and thus to provide data for the complete reform of astronomy. As we have seen, few of the Danish nobles had any sympathy with Tycho's pursuits, and most of them strongly resented the continual expense borne by the King's treasury. Tycho moreover was so absorbed in his scientific pursuits that he would not take the trouble to be a good landlord, nor to carry out all the duties laid upon him in return for certain of his grants of income. His buildings included a chemical laboratory, and he was in the habit of making up elixirs for various medical purposes; these were quite popular, particularly as he made no charge for them. He seems to have been something of a homœopathist, for he recommends sulphur to cure infectious diseases "brought on by the sulphurous vapours of the Aurora Borealis"!

King Frederick, in consideration of various grants to Tycho, relied upon his assistance in scientific matters, and especially in astrological calculations; such as the horoscope of the heir apparent, Prince Christian, born in 1577, which has been preserved among Tycho's writings. There is, however, no known copy in existence of any of the series of annual almanacs with predictions which he prepared for the King. In November, 1577, appeared a bright comet, which Tycho carefully observed with his sextant, proving that it had no perceptible parallax, and must therefore be further off than the moon. He thus definitely overthrew the common belief in the atmospheric origin of comets, which he had himself hitherto shared. With increasing accuracy he observed several other comets, notably one in 1585, when he had a full equipment of instruments and a large staff of assistants. The year 1588, which saw the death of his royal benefactor, saw also the publication of a volume of Tycho's great work "Introduction to the New Astronomy". The first volume, devoted to the new star of 1572, was not ready, because the reduction of the observations involved so much research to correct the star places for refraction, precession, etc.; it was not completed in fact until Tycho's death, but the second volume, dealing with the comet of 1577, was printed at Uraniborg and some copies were issued in 1588. Besides the comet observations it included an account of Tycho's system of the world. He would not accept the Copernican system, as he considered the earth too heavy and sluggish to move, and also that the authority of Scripture was against such an hypothesis. He therefore assumed that the other planets revolved about the sun, while the sun, moon, and stars revolved about the earth as a centre. Geometrically this is much the same as the Copernican system, but physically it involves the grotesque demand that the whole system of stars revolves round our insignificant little earth every twenty-four hours. Since his previous small book on the comet, Tycho had evidently considered more fully its possible astrological significance, for he foretold a religious war, giving the date of its commencement, and also the rising of a great Protestant champion. These predictions were apparently fulfilled almost to the letter by the great religious wars that broke out towards the end of the sixteenth century, and in the person of Gustavus Adolphus.

King Frederick's death did not at first affect Tycho's position, for the new king, Christian, was only eleven years old, and for some years the council of regents included two of his supporters. After their deaths, however, his emoluments began to be cut down on the plea of economy, and as he took very little trouble to carry out any other than scientific duties it was easy enough for his enemies to find fault. One after another source of income was cut off, but he persevered with his scientific work, including a catalogue of stars. He had obtained plenty of good observations of 777 stars, but thought his catalogue should contain 1000 stars, so he hastily observed as many more as he could up to the time of his leaving Hveen, though even then he had not completed his programme. About the time that King Christian reached the age of eighteen, Tycho began to look about for a new patron, and to consider the prospects offered by transferring himself with his instruments and activities to the patronage of the Emperor Rudolph II. In 1597, when even his pension from the Royal treasury was cut off, he hurriedly packed up his instruments and library, and after a few weeks' sojourn at Copenhagen, proceeded to Rostock, in Mecklenburg, whence he sent an appeal to King Christian. It is possible that had he done this before leaving Hveen it might have had more effect, but it can be readily seen from the tone of the king's unfavourable reply that his departure was regarded as an aggravation of previous shortcomings. Driven from Rostock by the plague, Tycho settled temporarily at Wandsbeck, in Holstein, but towards the end of 1598 set out to meet the Emperor at Prague. Once more plague intervened and he spent some time at Dresden, afterwards going to Wittenberg for the winter. He ultimately reached Prague in June, 1599. Rudolph granted him a salary of at least 3000 florins, promising also to settle on him the first hereditary estate that should lapse to the Crown. He offered, moreover, the choice between three castles outside Prague, of which Tycho chose Benatek. There he set about altering the buildings in readiness for his instruments, for which he sent to Uraniborg. Before they reached him, after many vexatious delays, he had given up waiting for the funds promised for his building expenses, and removed from Benatek to Prague. It was during this interval that after considerable negotiation, Kepler, who had been in correspondence with Tycho, consented to join him as an assistant. Another assistant, Longomontanus, who had been with Tycho at Uraniborg, was finding difficulty with the long series of Mars observations, and it was arranged that he should transfer his energies to the lunar observations, leaving those of Mars for Kepler. Before very much could be done with them, however, Tycho died at the end of October, 1601. He may have regretted the peaceful island of Hveen, considering the troubles in which Bohemia was rapidly becoming involved, but there is little doubt that had it not been for his self-imposed exile, his observations would not have come into Kepler's hands, and their great value might have been lost. In any case it was at Uraniborg that the mass of observations was produced upon which the fame of Tycho Brahe rests. His own discoveries, though in themselves the most important made in astronomy for many centuries, are far less valuable than those for which his observations furnished the material. He discovered the third and fourth inequalities of the moon in longitude, called respectively the variation and the annual equation, also the variability of the motion of the moon's nodes and the inclination of its orbit to the ecliptic. He obtained an improved value of the constant of precession, and did good service by rejecting the idea that it was variable, an idea which, under the name of trepidation, had for many centuries been accepted. He discovered the effect of refraction, though only approximately its amount, and determined improved values of many other astronomical constants, but singularly enough made no determination of the distance of the sun, adopting instead the ancient and erroneous value given by Hipparchus.

His magnificent Observatory of Uraniborg, the finest building for astronomical purposes that the world had hitherto seen, was allowed to fall into decay, and scarcely more than mere indications of the site may now be seen.