Design Begins on Observational Instruments

In the pursuit of astronomy, Brahe became very familiar with the many subjects with which it is closely associated, such as mathematics, cartography, geography, navigation, and the use and construction of observational instruments. Brahe's first instrument used for observation was a cross-staff, or astronomical radius. It soon became clear that he was in need of a better instrument. Thus Brahe set about designing his first astronomical instrument for measuring the stellar positions.

In 1565, Brahe left Leipzig for Denmark, which was currently at war with Sweden. At this time, his uncle Jorgen, a vice admiral, was in Copenhagen with his fleet when King Fredrik II fell from his own boat into the waters surrounding the royal castle. While trying to rescue the king, Jorgen fell in after him and died a short while later from pneumonia contracted from the ordeal.

After his uncle Jorgen's death, Brahe spent a year in Denmark with his natural family, included now as brother and son instead of cousin and nephew. The only family member who supported his love for astronomy was another uncle, Steen Bille. Seeing no sense in staying where his family would constantly nag him about his future, Brahe was soon off to Rostok, Germany, where he entered the university.

For the next four years, Brahe continued his education, moving from Rostok to Augsburg. In Augsburg, during spring 1570, he finished construction on his famous Great Quadrant, the largest instrument of its kind both then and now. It was 18 feet (5.5 m) in diameter and made entirely from oak, except for the brass graduation strip and plumb bob, and turned on four great handles (see page 23). It was so heavy and cumbersome that 40 men were needed to install it!

For two months, Brahe made weekly observations with it, recording his findings, making adjustments, and exhausting his servants with the amount of work it took to handle it. Rumor spread, and due to the Great Quadrant, Brahe began to make a name for himself as a serious astronomer rather than merely an astrological forecaster. The Great Quadrant was only the first of all the fascinating instruments he would design in order to observe the stars and planets, for there is one important thing he discovered that would change the practice of astronomical science forever: astronomy needed accurate and constant—not occasional—observational data.

In winter 1570, Brahe left Germany and returned home to the family's Knundstrup Castle to attend at the deathbed of his father, Otte, who later died in May 1571. He also met and grew to love a common woman by the name of Kirsten Barbara Jorgensdatter. Due to their differing social status—he a noble and she a commoner— they were not allowed to marry in the eyes of the Catholic Church.



Tycho Brahe's first self-designed instrument for measuring stellar positions was finished in 1569.

Tycho Brahe's Metal Nose

There is another matter regarding Brahe's fame, and that is his metal nose! In 1566, during a Christmas celebration in Rostok, Brahe became quarrelsome with another Danish student named Manderup Parsberg. It is not clear exactly what the argument was about, but it was likely over mathematics or the validity of one or two of Brahe's recent astronomical predictions. The two men ended up in a duel with swords (duels were common among European nobility, frequently resulting in death). The fight ended when Brahe was slashed across the face and a section of his nose severed off. He spent long days recuperating from his wound. Later, the young astronomer had a false nosepiece made to hide his disfigurement. Most accounts state the nosepiece was made from gold or a mix of silver and gold, and held in place using an adhesive salve. However, in 1901, on the 300th anniversary of his death, Brahe was exhumed, or taken from his grave, for the purposes of determining whether or not his body was in there. Indeed, there was the body with a disfigured nose (as well as the body of a woman who is presumed to be his common-law wife, Kirsten). Around the nose area, traces of green were found on the scar tissue, indicative that perhaps the nosepiece was made of copper. Alternatively, he may have had a "formal" nosepiece of gold and then another lighter copper version for daily wear. Some of his portraits clearly show the false nose.

Despite this, they lived together all their lives, and Kirsten gave birth to three sons and five daughters. (Unions between nobles and commoners were discouraged, but were not out of the ordinary and were viewed as common-law marriages.)

After his father's death, Brahe moved to nearby Herrevad Abbey to live with his maternal uncle Steen Bille, the only relative who approved of his devotion to astronomy and of his more



Tycho Brahe designed and built his Great Quadrant in 1570 in Augsburg, Germany.

recent scientific interest, chemistry. Steen Bille was responsible for building the first paper mill and glassworks in Denmark, and he dabbled in alchemy (chemical research) as well, so he had his own laboratory in which to conduct experiments. The two had enough in common for them to get along quite well together.

His Discoveries on the Supernova of 1572

It was at Herrevad Abbey on November 11, 1572, while Brahe was walking from his uncle's alchemy laboratory to the main house, that an event happened that would change his life, elevating him to royal astronomer and master over the finest observatory ever built in Europe. Looking up to the heavens that night, Brahe noticed within the constellation Cassiopeia a bright new star, one that had never been there before. This was not possible! The stars did not change within the eighth sphere of unchangeable heavens, not now, not in the beginning of creation, nor for eternity to come!

Unable to believe his eyes, Brahe called together servants and passing peasants to bear witness to this new star, a supernova that shone more brightly than Jupiter's closest approach. Brahe had to determine exactly what this new object was. Laying aside his chemistry work, he settled into his observations using his newest instrument, a grand sextant with arms five and one-half feet (1.68 m) long, marked to the minute, and accompanied by a table of corrections he had compiled in order to account for any error that the instrument might invite. After a few nights of careful observation, he was soon convinced that the bright object was undeniably a star, not a comet or a planet, for it did not possess a filmy tail or move in any way relative to the other stars. Therefore, he concluded, it must indeed exist in the eighth sphere, the boundary of fixed stars whose divine unchangeability was held in relationship with the perfection of God himself. This shattered the Catholic views declaring that only within the boundary between the Earth and Moon—the sublunary sphere—did things change. No one had seen or recorded anything such as this. (Hipparchus, around 125 b.c.e., was the only other person to see and describe the appearance of a new star.) Brahe's supernova burned for 18 months before gradually fading

The First Observation of a Supernova

In about 125 B.C.E., the Greek astronomer, geographer, and mathematician Hipparchus observed a supernova, nova meaning "new star." (Of course, it is now known that a supernova is an exploding star, thus a dying star, not a "new star"). This event caused him to want to discover if stars were born and then died. He also created his own star catalog of close to 1,000 stars, in which he divides stars into classes according to their brightness, called magnitude. His catalog was used for the next 1,600 years, and his system of measuring brightness is still employed today. He is also responsible for discovering that the Earth wobbles slightly on its axis; he estimated the size of the Moon and its distance from Earth; he formulated a method for predicting eclipses; he calculated the length of the year to within six and one- half minutes, and discovered the precession of equinoxes.

into oblivion, but at its height of brilliance it was sometimes visible even during the day.

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