The Observations of
Tycho Brahe

As we have noted, modern astronomy is built on the interplay between quantitative observations and testable theories that attempt to account for those observations in a logical and mathematical way. A crucial ingredient in the Copernican revolution was the acquisition of more precise data on the motions of objects on the celestial sphere.

Precise Observations before the Invention of the Telescope

A Danish nobleman, Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), made important contributions by devising the most precise instruments available before the invention of the telescope for observing the heavens. Brahe made his observations from Uraniborg, on an island in the sound between Denmark and Sweden called Hveen. The instruments of Brahe allowed him to determine more precisely than had been possible the detailed motions of the planets. In particular, Brahe compiled extensive data on the planet Mars, which would later prove crucial to Kepler in his formulation of the laws of planetary motion because it would be sufficiently precise to demonstrate that the orbit of Mars was not a circle but an ellipse.

The Life and Times of Tycho Brahe

Brahe was by all accounts an extremely colorful character. He allegedly challenged a fellow student to a duel with swords in a dispute over who was the better mathematician. Brahe's nose was partially cut off, and he was said to wear a gold and silver replacement upon which he would continually rub oil. He fell out of favor when a new King came to power in 1588, and moved to Prague shortly thereafter. This is of great historical significance because this move would eventually make Brahe's data available to Kepler, who went to Prague also to become Brahe's assistant. Brahe is thought to have died when he contracted a urinary infection while attending a banquet hosted by a baron in Prague in which he drank extensively but felt that etiquette prevented him from leaving the table to relieve himself before the host left.

Summary of Brahe's Contributions

Among the important contributions of Brahe:
  1. He made the most precise observations that had yet been made by devising the best instruments available before the invention of the telescope.

  2. His observations of planetary motion, particularly that of Mars, provided the crucial data for later astronomers like Kepler to construct our present model of the solar system.

  3. He made observations of a supernova (literally: nova= "new star") in 1572 (we now know that a supernova is an exploding star, not a new star). This was a "star" that appeared suddenly where none had been seen before, and was visible for about 18 months before fading from view. Since this clearly represented a change in the sky, prevailing opinion held that the supernova was not really a star but some local phenomenon in the atmosphere (remember: the heavens were supposed to be unchanging in the Aristotelian view). Brahe's meticulous observations showed that the supernova did not change positions with respect to the other stars (no parallax). Therefore, it was a real star, not a local object. This was early evidence against the immutable nature of the heavens, although Brahe did not interpret the absence of parallax for stars correctly, as we discuss below.

  4. Brahe made careful observations of a comet in 1577. By measuring the parallax for the comet, he was able to show that the comet was further away than the Moon. This contradicted the teachings of Aristotle, who had held that comets were atmospheric phenomena ("gases burning in the atmosphere" was a common explanation among Aristotelians). As for the case of the supernova, comets represented an obvious change in a celestial sphere that was supposed to be unchanging; furthermore, it was very difficult to ascribe uniform circular motion to a comet.

  5. He made the best measurements that had yet been made in the search for stellar parallax. Upon finding no parallax for the stars, he (correctly) concluded that either

    • the earth was motionless at the center of the Universe, or

    • the stars were so far away that their parallax was too small to measure.

    Not for the only time in human thought, a great thinker formulated a pivotal question correctly, but then made the wrong choice of possible answers: Brahe did not believe that the stars could possibly be so far away and so concluded that the Earth was the center of the Universe and that Copernicus was wrong.

  6. Brahe proposed a model of the Solar System that was intermediate between the Ptolemaic and Copernican models (it had the Earth at the center). It proved to be incorrect, but was the most widely accepted model of the Solar System for a time.
Thus, Brahe's ideas about his data were not always correct, but the quality of the observations themselves was central to the development of modern astronomy.

Supplementary References