On Tycho’s Island (Not Far from the Castle at Elsinore)

by Leanne Ogasawara

TychoIt is every astronomer's dream.

To be granted your own island, you are then given practically unlimited funds so to be able to design, build and run your own observatory. Who could have such luck, you are probably wondering? Well, Tycho Brahe, who stands as one of the most fascinating and quirky characters in the history of astronomy, found himself in just this ideal position.

It was the mid 16th century. And the island he set his sights on was located in the middle of the Danish sound, not far from the Elsinore, the stage of Hamlet's tragedy. A quiet island, Tycho was not only given the island of Hven in its entirity, but he was put in charge of the people living there as well. Conscripted like Russian serfs, the villagers of Hven woke up one day to learn that a new boss was in town, and they owed him two days work a week–no wages to be paid.

And so with their labor, Tycho's great building project commenced “for the contemplation of philosophy, especially of the stars.”

John Robert Christianson, in his delightfully well-written book, On Tycho's Island, describes the project in detail. “A Platonic philosopher, Paracelsian chemist, and Ovidian poet, Tycho Brahe was the last Renaissance man,” says Christianson.

The last Renaissance man was also the “first great organizer of modern science.”

A high ranking aristocrat from a powerful family, Tycho had the full backing of the Danish crown. The king hoped that Tycho would bring fame to his country in the form of great scientific discoveries. And everyone at court looked forward to seeing the new observatory take shape. Tycho planned Uraniborg (“Castle of Urania”) to be both elegant AND cutting edge. Trying to create something like “the past glories of Castiglione's Urbino and Ficino's Platonic Academy in Florence,” Uraniborg was probably really modeled on Palladio's Villa Rotunda, near Vicenza, which Tycho might have seen when he visited Venice 1575. Tycho was perhaps drawn to Palladio's architecture because of its strict use of purely geometric forms.


Like a Chinese imperial palace, Uraniborg's construction evoked a magnificent cosmological (ie, geometrical) worldview. Entry into the complex was through the eastern gate. The structure, which sat in a circular area dead center within the two nested squares, was not only the manor house of the lord, but it also functioned as an astronomical observatory and chemical laboratory.

Passing through the rustic eastern gate, English dogs in kennels would alert the household of approaching guests. Paths led from the four cardinal point gates in diagonal straight lines toward the central circle, passing through the first square area of orchards and then through a fence into the inner square, which contained a carefully tended garden. Like a garden of Eden, it is speculated that there were aviaries with singing birds and orchards full of fruit trees, like apples, pears, figs, plums, cherries and walnuts. With over three hundred kinds of trees and plants in the gardens, it must have been a delight to all the senses–evoking harmony, beauty and serenity!

And so, like Plato's academy, which was also a garden school attracting the great minds from all of the classical Greek world, Uriniborg drew the finest minds in all of Europe.

Harkening back to ancient academies, Tycho's plan to create such a gathering place for devotees of poetry, art and science was hardly new in conception.

It's scientific project, however, was.

Serving as the great patron, Tycho would go on to train perhaps hundreds of people in his unique observational methods. Christiansen explains this in terms of the Italian familia model, which saw a large group of people coming together under one roof, forming a kind of extended household. Beholden to the patron, underlings would engage in large-scale collective science. Some worked in the labs, while others wrote. Still others were active observing the night sky. And unlike the research groups of today, evenings were spent engaged in hours of conversation during elaborate nightly meals, accompanied by much wine, music and poetry.

It was like CERN –but with much better dinner parties every night!

In addition to an ever-changing array of live-in students and noble guests, Brahe employed a court jester named Jepp, who Brahe believed possessed psychic powers and ate his dinners under the table. There was also a famous pet elk, which would sometimes stand in for the host when noblemen visited the island and Tycho was otherwise engaged. Uraniborg became quickly the stuff of legend –for there was simply no place like Tycho's magical island of Hven.

And then, luck on his side: Tycho would the star that would change everything.

Brahe_notebookThis happened in 1573. The Nova Stella was a supernova that would rock the world.

He was so lucky to see a naked-eye supernova.

I have never seen one. I really wish it could happen someday for me before I kick the bucket. But it is not something that can be predicted and because we no longer have dark skies, without media attention, people might not even notice unless it was very bright. Tycho's new star not only appeared in the those northern Danish skies, but it was very bright! And like the Star of Bethlehem, it would really shake things up for the people of the times by further casting doubt on the established Aristotelian notion that the region of aether was a realm where physics did not hold sway. Eternal and unchanging, a new star in that region was impossible, according to Aristotle. And yet there it was. And Tycho insisted the new star was much “higher” than the sublunar region, where change was acknowledged to occur. This changeability of the heavens was then further made apparent a few years later when the world (ie, Latin Europe and the Islamic Middle East) bore witness to the Great Comet of 1577.

Discovering it after a long day out fishing, Tycho would make many detailed notes about the comet in his observation notebook. For Tycho, the comet was a revolution. Being something new in the sky beyond the moon, it definitely proved Aristotle to be wrong about the unchangeability of the firmament. But more significantly, the comet's “egg-like” orbit disproved Ptolemy's insistence on the perfection of circular motion. And as if that was not all stimulating enough, Tycho noted that the comet traveled within the orbit of the planets. This he said, showed that Ptolemy's crystalline spheres were also problematic–to say the least.

Tycho was a true observer at heart. Inventing several new instruments which allowed him to make even better observations, he would keep a very detailed observation log and this along with his other voluminous data would lead Kepler to later devise his brilliant laws of planetary motion— aided in great part by his inheriting Tycho's observation data upon his death in Prague. And Tycho accomplished this all before the invention of the telescope!

As you read about Tycho's life, you will feel he had such good fortune. He seems unstoppable. After building Uraniborg, Tycho not only built his second observatory on Hven, a subterranean lab called Stjernborg (“castle of the stars”), but he also built his own printing press and paper mill so as to be able to better disseminate his work throughout Europe –all for the glory of Tycho Brahe! And if that is not enough to impress you, Tycho even managed to make losing his nose in a duel seem like a piece of good fortune; for his silver and golden prosthetic noses were legendary. With a magical island and all the power of the crown behind him, the golden-nosed wizard continue compiling data, making his observations using Copernicus' own sextant! And last but not least, the nobleman even managed to marry for love–no small feat in those days.

Everything seems so ideal that you might be broadsided by how much, and how quickly, Tycho's life falls completely apart.

The trouble starts when he tries to marry off his eldest daughter. First of all, she is not considered an aristocrat since Tycho had married for love a commoner. Second, the prospective groom was one of the members of his familia. This does not end well at all and then everything else–and seriously, I mean everything– falls apart. His widowed sister proceeds to fall in love with an obsessed alchemist of the worst kind, who eventually has to flee the country one step ahead of his creditors, so badly has he gambled everything on his schemes to turn metals into gold. Then the king dies and the entire world seems to turn against him; so that before long Tycho leaves Denmark to seek refuge at the court of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, before dying soon there after.

It is a staggering reversal of fortune that immediately calls to mind Boethius.

(For whatever reason, I remain fascinated by reversals of fortune).

Poor Tycho Brahe, in the blink of an eye, he had lost everything. After the King's death, the new king almost immediately coming to power ended the astronomer's stipend and it was soon clear his magical island would be returned to the crown. He stood firm for a few years, but as he watched his other properties being taken away and he found himself embroiled in various lawsuits, he finally decided his time had come. So, he left in search of a new patron. Living in exile and working for Rudolph II in Prague, Tycho was terrified his life work would all be for nothing since so much had been left undone due to all his personal trials. He therefore insisted that Kepler, his new assistant in Prague, make good use of his voluminous data to finish things up after he died.

And die he did.

…..Or was he murdered?

Are you ready for Tycho, the Movie?

For the golden-nosed wizard, who at one time owned 1% of the entire wealth of Denmark, had also made a lot of enemies.

ThomasDiggesmapFirst of all, there were people who suspected that he had had an affair with the king's mother. It would explain why the son turned so viciously against him as soon as his father passed away and he came of age. Queen Sophia was much enamored by Uraniborg and spent some time on the island with Tycho (sans her husband, the king). Rumors that he had had an affair with Queen Sophia led to gossip that some say inspired Shakespeare's Hamlet!

I never realized this Hamlet connection till I read the most interesting short paper by an astronomer at Penn State, Peter D. Usher, who argues that Hamlet actually can be read as an allegory of two competing cosmological world views: the infinite Sun-centered universe of Thomas Digges (c.1546-1595) of England, and a hybrid Earth-centered model of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) of Denmark.

In Usher's view, the evil Claudius in Hamlet stands in for the ancient astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern represent Brahe. And who is Hamlet, you wonder? Well, Prince Hamlet is Thomas Digges. Diggs, of course, was the English mathematician who was studying the same supernova that Brahe had worked on and was the first significant British natural philosopher to champion the Copernican viewpoint. His image of the Copernican universe is famous for being one of the first depictions of infinite space. Previously, the end of the universe was always demarcated.

As Dan Falk of the Guardian wonders,

When Hamlet envisions himself as “a king of infinite space”, could Shakespeare be alluding to the new, infinite universe described – for the first time – by his countryman, Digges? Usher’s proposal strikes most Shakespeare scholars as far-fetched – yet even sceptics do a double-take when they look at Brahe’s coat of arms, noticing that two of Brahe’s relatives were named “Rosencrans” and “Guildensteren”.

Isn't that brilliant? Falk continues:

Donald Olson of Texas State University has argued that the star observed by Prince Hamlet shining “westward from the pole” was inspired by Shakespeare’s boyhood memory of Tycho’s star – reinforced, perhaps, by a reference to it in Holinshed’s Chronicles 15 years later. (At the very least, Shakespeare would have seen the next supernova, “Kepler’s star”, in 1604.) One might note that Brahe observed the stars from the Danish island of Hven, a stone’s throw from the castle of Elsinore, Shakespeare’s setting for Hamlet.

It is a provocative theory –and I am already looking forward to re-reading Hamlet with Tycho in mind.

The above question of murder, by the way, was taken seriously enough that in 2010 Czech researchers decided to exhume his body!

Was he murdered by the Danish king in revenge for an alleged affair–or perhaps he was murdered by Kepler, who after all stood to gain much from the death of his master, Tycho Brahe.

A husband and wife team has written a narrative history book called Heavenly Intrigue, which is described as a “real life Amadeus,” which is written like a mystery thriller and follows a trail of alchemical mercury poisoning– laying the crime at the feat of–you guessed it–Johannes Kepler. Because of the systematic nature of the poisoning, it would have had to be someone with daily contact with the astronomer, says the authors–and who would benefit more than Kepler? Going on to inherit his position as imperial mathematician, Kepler was entrusted with all of Tycho Brahe's data. And it was voluminous. In those days, after all, astronomy was not considered to be a physical science or related to physics at all, but along with music was a subset of mathematics. Astronomers did make observations but the majority of their energy was spent in constructing mathematical models which served to “save the phenomenon.”

Tycho, however, was a dedicated observationalist and kept detailed logs of decades of work observing the skies. Having this kind of data was a great boon which allowed Kepler to go on and perform the truly phenomenal work to come in his career. Namely, Kepler's planetary Laws, which some would argue took Tycho's research much further than Tycho could have managed on his own (To the point where some say Tycho was worth more dead than alive, when it comes to the history os astronomy and science!)

Anyway, after all that trouble of digging up his body, the researchers were only to learn that he probably died of a burst bladder.

Poor Tycho!

At the beck and call of the Holy Roman Emperor, custom demanded that no one could ever excuse themselves from the table if the emperor was still seated. So, Tycho unable to get up to go to the bathroom during a long banquet, suffered a ruptured bladder. Sounds a rather unimpressive end to such an exalted life as Tycho Brahe's. But sometimes the seeming failures of our individual lives can in time come to have enormous impact on history. For it was Tycho's data that would enable Kepler to kick start what became what we know as modern astronomy today.

Recommended: Renaissance Mathimaticus' Financing Tycho's little piece of heaven

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