Stories of Great Scientists - Charles Gibson

Tycho Brache

Astrologer, Alchemist, and Medical Quack, but a Most Distinguished Astronomer

The name of Tycho Brahe, though foreign to us, would not seem strange to his fellow-countrymen in Denmark. Indeed, the name Tycho is still used among the Danes.

In the ordinary course of events Tycho would have become a soldier. He was born at a time (1546) when learning was left very much to the monks. He came of a noble family who lived on the estate of their ancestors, but the present owners were not wealthy. It was usual that the sons of gentlemen should devote their lives to the protection of their country, or spend their time in hunting. For such avocation it was considered that no book-learning was necessary, and had the intentions of Tycho's father been fulfilled it is probable that we should never have heard his name. But it so happened that an uncle, who had no family, desired to adopt one of his nephews. The uncle and aunt were desirous of having the entire upbringing of the boy, but so long as Tycho was the only son, his parents could not part with him. However, there seems to have been a definite understanding that ultimately the boy would go to the uncle, for we find Tycho getting special instruction in reading and writing, and later on in Latin and Literature. All this was in opposition to his father's ideas, but the uncle, on the other hand, was a well-educated man.

After the death of Tycho's father, who left five sons and five daughters, the uncle sent Tycho to the University of Copenhagen. The boy was then only thirteen years of age, so he must have been a very apt pupil, though it is interesting to note that our own Lord Kelvin entered Glasgow University at an earlier age even than this. Tycho's uncle's ambition seems to have been to give his nephew a good education in philosophy and law, so that he might be able to fill some of the great political offices.

While Tycho was a law student at Copenhagen there was a great deal of talk about an eclipse of the Sun which had been prophesied to occur on a certain, day. The interest of the people was not a scientific one; Science was a thing of the past so far as these people were concerned. But, according to their notions, this eclipse of the Sun might carry with it the destiny of a whole nation, and no doubt the Astrologers would have been busy in framing predictions.

Of course, all this about Astrology seems strange to us, but if we picture a people totally devoid of all knowledge of Astronomy, we can understand that when they found that Astrologers were able to predict definite happenings in the heavens, it seemed natural that they should be able to predict also what should happen on this Earth.

When the twenty-first day of August, 1560, dawned, there would be considerable excitement, for that was the very day upon which the Astrologers had said the Sun would be darkened. Tycho, now a boy of fourteen years, was one of the anxious watchers, and when things happened in the heavens just as they had been predicted, he was carried away with enthusiasm. He, too, would learn to predict not only what should take place in the heavens, but among the nations also. In other words, Tycho decided there and then that he would become an Astrologer; a profession far removed from that of an Astronomer. He purchased books dealing with the planetary motions, which books would, of course, state that the Earth was the centre of the Universe.

We may presume that Tycho's uncle was not party to this idea of the youth becoming an Astrologer, for we find Tycho, at the age of sixteen years, being sent with a tutor to Leipzig to extend his knowledge of law. But his hobby had a far greater fascination for him than the study of law. All his spare time was devoted to a study of the heavens, and all his spare pocket money went to the purchase of books on Astronomy. Tycho would sit up at night, presumably without his tutor's knowledge, and study the stars. He could soon distinguish the different planets and trace their apparent motions. With the aid of a pair of rude compasses and a celestial globe no larger than an orange, this youthful astronomer found that some of the accepts calculations of the planetary motions did not agree with his own calculations, and so Tycho resolved to devote his life to obtaining accurate information concerning the motions of the heavenly bodies.

To the average youth such a task would have seemed impossible, for the whole of Tycho's training had been in philosophy and law; he had never studied Mathematics. But he had reached that stage at which he could learn on his own account, and so, without the aid of any master, he gained the necessary knowledge of arithmetic and geometry. Tycho found some of the predicted motions of the planets so very far out, in some cases a whole month, that he determined to make more accurate instruments for observing. Telescopes were not invented until the succeeding generation.

Tycho had practically completed his study of law, when news came that his uncle had died, leaving his fortune to Tycho.

Now he was free to settle in Denmark to pursue his astronomical studies with freedom. But we are told that his relatives and friends were not pleased that he should have abandoned law for what seemed to them a ridiculous and useless occupation; that, indeed, they made things so uncomfortable for Tycho that he left Denmark and settled in Germany.

We must remember that Tycho's study of Astronomy was closely connected with Astrology; the great plague which devastated Europe later was believed by him to be due to the conjunction of two of the planets having taken place in a certain part of the heavens which had a special connection with pestilence.

While pursuing his astronomical observations in Germany Tycho attended a wedding feast. He may have attended many more, but we know of this one because while at this feast he had a quarrel with a fellow-countryman. The occasion of the dispute had reference to their mathematical acquirements. Matters were evidently smoothed over for the time, but about a fortnight later Tycho and this quarrelsome guest happened to meet again, at some festive games. Instead of letting bygones be bygones they revived the fdrmer quarrel. So serious did the matter appear to them that they decided to fight a duel with swords, but how this should decide which was the better mathematician is difficult to see. However, the fight did not take place in the heat of the moment, but two days later. It was a dark December evening, and one biographer states that they fought in total darkness. But surely there must have been sufficient light to enable the combatants to see the position of each other, or the seconds might have fared badly. However, the result was that Tycho had his nose cut off by his opponent. To lose one's nose would not improve one's personal appearance. And if we try to picture Tycho as described by some of his biographers, we can well imagine that the loss of his nose would not add to his good looks. He was of middle size, and had "reddish yellow hair" and a ruddy complexion.

Tycho did the best he could under the circumstances. He had an imitation nose made. This artificial nose has been described by some as a nose of gold and silver; by others it is spoken of as a construction of putty and brass. His nose would be a decided novelty in these days, and would be of general interest. He seems to have had some difficulty in getting the nose to remain in its proper place, for he is said to have carried with him a box of cement with which he could replace the nose when it fell off.

While Tycho was still a young man of twenty-two years, he had a very large quadrant instrument made by which he could make more perfect observations. The best workmen were employed for a month making this huge instrument, which required twenty men to carry it to its place of fixture.

At the age of twenty-five Tycho had become famous as an Astronomer, and when he returned to Denmark he was received as a great man. The King invited him to Court, an uncle provided him with an observatory and a laboratory, and for a time Tycho became a very keen alchemist. There have been many honest alchemists who earnestly sought to produce gold from silver, and to discover not only a panacea for all ills, but a tonic which should prolong life indefinitely.

Tycho worked hard in his laboratory; he was an enthusiast in everything he took up of his own accord. Upon leaving his laboratory one night, the sky happened to be very clear, and Tycho observed overhead a bright star which he had never seen before. Of course, Tycho was so familiar with the heavens by this time that he would very quickly spot a stranger. But this seemed so impossible a thing that he called his servants out to assure him that the star was really there. He hurried off to his observatory and noted down the exact position of this new star, so that he might find out if it moved or if it were a fixed star. Tycho's friends joked him about this new star, but he was able to point it out to them, for it was bright as Venus at her best. Strange to say, the new star began to diminish; it remained visible for a little more than a year, then faded out altogether. Tycho was able to say definitely that this temporary star was very far distant, away among the fixed stars. Other temporary stars have appeared and disappeared in similar fashion, and we believe these to be great masses of incandescent gas produced by some collision or disruption far off in space. Tycho, who was now twenty-seven years of age, fell in love with a peasant girl. He shocked the dignity of his friends by marrying this girl who had been brought up in so humble a position. Some two years later Tycho decided to remove from Denmark, so he set off by himself on a tour of inspection on the Continent, ultimately fixing upon Basle as a permanent residence "not only from its centrical position, but from the salubrity of the air, and the cheapness of living."

Tycho returned home and made all preparations for the departure of himself and family to Basle. Just then a messenger arrived with a letter from the King of Denmark asking Tycho to meet him at Copenhagen. To Tycho's great surprise the King entreated him to remain in Denmark. He offered Tycho a certain island where he could have peace to make celestial observations. His Majesty presented Tycho with the sum of twenty thousand pounds wherewith to build a large observatory on the island. He also made over to him an estate in Norway, which would yield him an income, and in addition to all this he undertook to give him a pension for life of four hundred pads a year. Needless to say, Tycho gladly accepted this very handsome offer, and he expressed the hope that by such means he might make discoveries that would be a credit to his native land.

Tycho's observatory was a veritable castle, but it was no plaything; Tycho put in twenty years' earnest work, and work that counted much for future generations of men. He did the first really accurate work in Astronomy, and all without the aid of any telescope, the discovery of which we shall consider when we inquire into the life of Galileo, who was born in Italy when Tycho was a lad of eighteen. These two great men never met. A mutual friend recommended Tycho to write to Galileo. This he did, but the acquaintance went no further.

We must not picture Tycho as a recluse away in his island home. He had always a number of students resident at the observatory, and he had constant visitors from many different countries. Among the royal visitors we find James I of England, who spent eight days at Tycho's observatory. Of course, it was King James's marriage with Anne of Denmark that took him to these quarters.

The description of Tycho's house in the observatory reminds one of the country mansion of the great French conjurer, Robert Houdin. Tycho had invisible bells which communicated with every part of his establishment, and with the gentlest touch he could summon any of his pupils before him. When some stranger was present Tycho would mutter in a mysterious manner, "Come hither, Peter!" whereupon one of his pupils would suddenly appear before them. In this and similar ways Tycho would mystify his visitors. Then he had a great collection of automatic devices of his own invention, which interested all visitors.

But there was one of Tycho's "curiosities" which must have been very unpleasant to his guests. He kept an idiot boy named Lep, who lay at Tycho's feet during meals, and whom he fed with his own hand. Tycho imagined this idiot to be something wonderful, and no matter what guests were present, every one had to keep quiet when this boy spoke, so that Tycho might note down what the boy said. Tycho believed that the boy's mind could foretell the future. Such scenes must have been most distressing.

Tycho was so superstitious that if, on leaving his house, he happened to meet an old woman or a hare, he would not proceed farther, but returned immediately to his home.

In the subtitle to this chapter I have described Tycho as a Medical Quack. This is quite justified, for although Tycho was not a trained physician, he doctored many invalids who flocked to his island. One must suppose that his cures were, like those of present-day quacks, performed on persons who were hypochondriacal, or highly imaginative and nervous persons. However, he had invented what we should call nowadays a patent medicine, which was in great demand and is said to have been on sale in every apothecary's shop in Germany.

Such things aroused the jealousy of the medical profession, and when Tycho's great benefactor, the King, died, leaving his young son to fill the throne, the physicians helped to stir up a feeling against Tycho. So many adverse things were said about Tycho and his work that a committee, what we should call now a Royal Commission, was appointed to inquire into the value of Tycho's work, for he was still drawing his income from the State. This committee had the audacity to report that Tycho's work was absolutely worthless and that it would be ridiculous to allow him to draw any income from the Treasury.

Deprived of his estate in Norway, and of his pension, Tycho was compelled to give up his great observatory, in which he had worked and lived for twenty years. It will be remembered that Tycho had been left his uncle's fortune, amounting to about twenty thousand pounds, and he had doubtless accumulated money from his famous medicine. But all his fortune had been spent upon his great observatory, which in all must have cost not less than forty thousand pounds. We can understand what a heartbreak it must have been for Tycho to be forced to abandon all this. He had to retire to a house in Copenhagen, to which he carried all his smaller instruments.

Not long after this Tycho determined to leave Denmark altogether. He returned to his island and collected all the other instruments that were movable, along with his books and crucibles. He hired a ship and set sail, accompanied by his wife, his family of nine, many pupils and assistants, and a number of servants. The plague, which was then spreading in Europe, prevented Tycho taking up a permanent residence.

He was introduced to the Emperor of Bohemia, who was "addicted to alchemy and astrology." The Emperor gave Tycho the choice of several castles for an observatory. In addition to this he settled a very substantial annual pension upon him. And so Tycho established a school at Prague, where he employed many good calculators as assistants. Among these assistants was Johann Kepler, whose life we shall consider in the succeeding chapter.

Tycho's health gave way, and he lived only four years after leaving his happy island home in Denmark. His life of fifty-five years was a crowded one. He was a devout man, a great student of the Holy Scriptures, and there is no doubt that it was on religious grounds that he did not accept the theory of Copernicus that the Earth was not the centre of the Universe.

One is pleased to know that Tycho's widow and family were not left in want, for the Emperor purchased Tycho's instruments for a very large sum of money.

The great value of Tycho's work was his making Astronomy and accurate Science, and something more than a mere aid to Astrology. Considering the instruments with which he had towork, Tycho's observations are a marvel of accuracy; he never made one careless mistake. Tycho Braché laid the foundation upon which modern Astronomy has been builded.