About Tycho Brahe

An eccentric nobleman from Denmark

Tycho Brahe was the eccentric Danish scientist who put Ven on the world map – as early as the 16th century. On Ven, Tycho erected one of Europe’s first scientific institutions to use empirical research. The compound on the island included the spectacular castle Uraniborg, the subterranean observatory, Stjärneborg and the breathtaking Renaissance Garden.

Tycho Brahe was born on 14 December, 1546 at Knutstorp Castle in Skåne – which at the time was a Danish province. His parents, Otte Brahe and Beate Bille, belonged to the most powerful part of the Danish high aristocracy and several of his relatives served the King as Privy Council or as overlord of any fortress. Tycho was raised by his uncle Jörgen Brahe and his wife Inger Oxe at Tostrup Castle. He also spent much time in at Herrevads Abbey.

At the age of 13 Tycho was sent to the University of Copenhagen to study philosophy and rhetoric. A solar eclipse in 1560 aroused his interest in astronomy and he began to read books on the subject. He studied law, arts and sciences at the universities of Leipzig, Wittenberg, Rostock and Basel. In Leipzig he began to study astronomy without permission, but was quickly forgiven after he demonstrated success. He discovered that old observations often were not accurate and he began constructing methods and instruments for high-precision measurement of celestial bodies.

During his time in Rostock it is said that Tycho had a controversy with another student. This ended with a duel where Tycho received a deep injury to his nose. For the rest of his life he covered over the scar with a prosthesis probably made from a silver-copper alloy, in order to imitate the skin’s color.

In 1570 Tycho returned to Skåne. He spent long periods on Herrevads Abbey, which was owned by his uncle, Steen Bille. There he built a laboratory and devoted himself with great interest to the study of alchemy. On November 11th, 1572 Tycho observed a new and very bright star in the constellation Cassiopeia. Tycho’s measurements showed that it was indeed a distant star and not a local phenomenon. Awareness of this discovery spread quickly because the stellar vault was considered divine and perfect and therefore no change could occur there. Tycho observed stellar brightness until it faded away the following year. He reported the incident in his book “The New Star”, which made him famous throughout Europe.

Thanks to his celebrity Tycho received offers to scientific missions all over Europe. However, the Danish King persuaded him to stay in Denmark. Tycho was bestowed the island of Ven in the Öresund between Denmark and Sweden and in addition, the income from a number of estates. In return, he would build his own observatory on Ven and lead an ambitious scientific program. This is estimated to have cost Denmark 1-3% of the country’s gross domestic product a world record that has stood ever since.

Yet there was a difference of opinion between Tycho and the Danish court in 1597 and Tycho was forced to leave Denmark. He went into exile in Prague and was appointed Imperial Mathematician to the Emperor Rudolf II. The Emperor gave him the Castle Benatky as a residence. Tycho took his printing press and his instruments and continued with his observations. He appointed Johannes Kepler as his assistant who traveled to Benatky in 1600. They had been working together less than a year when Tycho died. Kepler compiled Tycho Brahe’s later observations and drew these basic conclusions that brought the knowledge of our planetary system to a new, higher level.

Tycho Brahe died on 24 October, 1601. Several excavations have been made of his grave but still no cause of death has been determined. Today, Ven is also a beautiful, very vibrant, tourist-friendly island. The Tycho Brahe Museum is visited by tens of thousands of visitors each year.

Recommended reading

Christianson, J.B. On Tycho´s Island: Tycho Brahe and His Assistants 1570-1601. 2008. Cambridge University Press.

Engström, U. Himlens väktare: Astronomins historia före teleskopet. 2011. Leopard förlag.

En ny himmel: Fra kugleskaller til kvanteskum. 2009. Århus universitetsforlag

Håkansson, H. (red). Att låta själen flyga mellan himlen tinnar: Tycho Brahe och hans tid. 2006. Atlantis. Stockholm.

Hultqvist Silverhjelm, H. En liten prick i det smala sundet: Om Ven och livet kring Öresund på Tycho Brahes tid. 2010. MoniterFörlaget.

Mosley, A. Bearing the Heavens: Tycho Brahe and the Astronomical Community of the Late Sixteenth Century. 2007. Cambridge University Press.

Thorén, V. The Lord of Uraniborg: A Biography of Tycho Brahe. 2006. Cambridge University Press.