In This Article Tycho Brahe

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Works
  • Biographical Studies
  • Death and Posthumous Significance

Renaissance and Reformation Tycho Brahe
by
Adam Mosley
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0237

Introduction

The Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe (b. 1546– d. 1601) is one of the best-known astronomers of the 16th century. He is particularly noted as an observational astronomer, who used the patronage offered to him by King Frederick II of Denmark to construct Uraniborg, a domicile and observatory, on the island of Hven in the Danish Sound. There he installed large astronomical instruments of great accuracy that, with the aid of a number of assistants, he used to observe stars, planets, and comets. He also installed and operated a printing press to publish his astronomical works, and he constructed a paper mill to supply it. Following Christian IV’s attainment of his majority in 1596, Brahe’s standing in Denmark declined, and in 1597 he left his homeland in search of better prospects and new patronage. He ended up in Bohemia, at the court of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, where he was appointed imperial mathematician. There he was joined by Johannes Kepler, who served as one of his assistants. Upon Brahe’s death in October 1601, Kepler succeeded him as imperial mathematician. It was Brahe’s astronomical data that allowed Kepler to generate the astronomical insights that are now generally referred to as his laws of planetary motion. In addition to making this contribution to the development of astronomy, Brahe has often been accorded a key role in the decline of Aristotelian cosmology, through his careful analyses of the supernova of 1572 and a series of comets (especially that of 1577), which supported the idea that these were celestial rather than meteorological phenomena. He rejected both the geocentric (Ptolemaic) and heliocentric (Copernican) world systems and devised as an alternative a geoheliocentric world system, according to which the planets orbited the sun, but the sun orbited Earth. He was not the only 16th-century scholar to publish such a system, and his claim to priority in this system’s “discovery” was disputed. However, his was the best-known geoheliocentric world system in the 17th century, and such systems are generically referred to as Tychonic or semi-Tychonic by modern scholars.

General Overviews

Though Tycho Brahe is often mentioned in textbook treatments of the “Scientific Revolution” (sometimes called the “Scientific Renaissance”), frequently he appears only as an indispensable element in any discussion of Johannes Kepler. He is better served by overviews of premodern and early modern astronomy. Dreyer 1967 situates Brahe’s astronomical work within the Western premodern tradition; Westman 1980, Thoren 1989, Swerdlow 1996, and Westman 2011 treat Brahe within the context of developments in 15th- and 16th-century astronomy.

  • Dreyer, J. L. E. A History of Astronomy from Thales to Kepler. New York: Dover, 1967.

    E-mail Citation »

    Though first published in 1906 (as History of the Planetary Systems from Thales to Kepler; Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press), this readable survey of planetary astronomy by a scholar who was both astronomer and historian is still worth consulting. Chapter 14 treats “Tycho Brahe and His Contemporaries.” Republished as recently as 2014 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press).

  • Swerdlow, N. M. “Astronomy in the Renaissance.” In Astronomy before the Telescope. Edited by Christopher Walker, 187–230. London: British Museum, 1996.

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    Provides a technically informed introduction to the astronomical achievements of Brahe alongside those of Regiomontanus, Copernicus, and Kepler.

  • Thoren, Victor E. “Tycho Brahe.” In Planetary Astronomy from the Renaissance to the Rise of Astrophysics. Part A. Tycho Brahe to Newton. Edited by René Taton and Curtis Wilson, 3–21. General History of Astronomy 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    E-mail Citation »

    A chapter-length introduction to Brahe’s life and work, suitable for students, in a volume surveying planetary astronomy in the Early Modern period. Authored by the scholar who went on to produce the best modern biography on Brahe.

  • Westman, Robert S. “The Astronomer’s Role in the Sixteenth Century: A Preliminary Study.” History of Science 18.2 (1980): 105–147.

    DOI: 10.1177/007327538001800202E-mail Citation »

    A rich article on the varied contexts, goals, and activities of 16th-century astronomers, discussing Brahe at some length.

  • Westman, Robert S. The Copernican Question: Prognostication, Skepticism, and Celestial Order. Fletcher Jones Foundation Humanities Imprint. Los Angeles and Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520254817.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    A substantial account of astronomy from the late 15th century to the 17th, whose central thesis concerning the evolution and reception of the Copernican world system has generated a mixed response. Regardless of this controversy, it is worth consulting for its comprehensive synthesis of existing literature and its original insights.

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