Tycho Brahe


Born: Dec 14, 1546 in Knutstorp Castle, Scania, Denmark, Denmark–Norway
Died: Oct 24, 1601 (at age 54) in Prague, Holy Roman Empire
Nationality: Danish
Famous For: accurate and comprehensive astronomical and planetary observations

The Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe first became interested in astronomy when he realized that it could accurately predict the eclipse of the sun. During his time, the planetary tables astronomers used were inaccurate, which was a problem that he set out to change.

Brahe’s Early Life

Brahe was born in Knudstrup, a town which is now in Sweden. He was a twin, but his twin died shortly after birth. His parents were aristocrats, but when Brahe was a toddler he was taken in and raised by his uncle. He entered the University of Copenhagen at around age 12 and stayed there for six years.

The Immutability of the Heavens

On November 11, 1572, the first new star to be noticed in 1600 years appeared in the night sky in Cassiopeia. Brahe’s observations proved that this object actually was a star and, as a result, disproved the old idea that the heavens were immutable.

The star was actually a supernova, SN 1572, which was the remnants of an exploded star. In 1577, Brahe also destroyed the idea that comets originated in the earth’s atmosphere. He showed that the Great Comet of 1577 was actually a body that moved through space.

Brahe’s Career

Brahe worked on the island of Hven in Denmark for more than 20 years. He also built the Uraniborg and the Stjerneborg for him and his students to further their astronomical research and studies. The island had been granted to him by Frederick II, King of Denmark.

However, Brahe ran afoul of the government and moved to Prague in 1597. There he enjoyed the patronage of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II. Brahe not only studied astronomy, but drew up horoscopes for the court because astronomy and astrology were considered to be closely related.

To Brahe, the placement of the planets always seemed very different from where they were actually observed in the sky. Brahe decided to observe the planets in a systematic way and to observe them every night over a sustained period of time.

Other astronomers had performed their planetary observations when the planets were in critical points in their orbits. Brahe’s new technique of observing the planets may have been one of his greatest contributions to astronomy.

While in Prague, Brahe also met Johannes Kepler, the German astronomer. Kepler became his assistant and used Brahe’s observations to confirm and refine the Copernican system, which Brahe had rejected.

Brahe’s Nose

Tycho Brahe also studied at the University of Leipzig as well as the German universities of Wittenberg and Rostock, then the University of Basel in Switzerland. While he was at Rostock, Brahe fought a duel with a Danish nobleman. The nobleman cut off a bit of Brahe’s nose. After that, Brahe wore a prosthetic that was allegedly made of gold and silver, though he may have worn base metals for everyday use. Brahe used this disability to his advantage, for it inspired him to take up the study of alchemy and medicine.

Brahe’s Death

Tycho Brahe died in 1601 after a banquet. Most reports say that he died from a urinary or kidney problem, but some scholars believe he was poisoned. One of the murder suspects, interestingly, is Johannes Kepler. Also, there is a theory that his brother murdered him, too. Brahe’s body is buried in Prague.

William Herschel


Born: Nov 15, 1738 in Hanover, Brunswick-Lüneburg, Holy Roman Empire
Died: Aug 25, 1822 (at age 83) in Slough, England
Nationality: German, British
Famous For: Discovery of infrared radation & Uranus, deep sky surveys

In 1781, the German-English astronomer William Herschel sent shockwaves through the world of science when he discovered the planet Uranus. Since humans began observing the stars, the general consensus was that there were only five other planets in addition to the earth orbiting our sun. That there could be sixth planet in the heavens was almost unthinkable.

Herschel’s Early Years

William Herschel was born in Germany in 1738 (as Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel), but spent just about all of this adult life in England. From a very early age, people noticed his intelligence. His father, Isaac Herschel, was an oboist in a military band, and young William displayed an amazing natural talent for music. He quickly mastered the violin, harpsichord, and organ. He also began composing classical music of extraordinary quality.

Speaking Different Languages

As Herschel grew into his teens, he began to show that he could master any intellectual challenge. He demonstrated that he could learn other languages with ease. A native German speaker, he quickly learned English, French, and Italian. He also absorbed Latin and Greek, and he could also read and write in both languages.

Herschel Enters High Society

In his early 20s, Herschel moved to Sunderland, England, where he landed the prestigious “first violinist” position for the Newcastle Orchestra. Herschel’s enormous talent both with writing and performing music boosted him to the top tier of English society, living and working mostly in Bath.

Herschel was deeply interested in the theory of music as well. This led him to a fascination with mathematics. A meeting with British Royal Astronomer Nevil Maskelyne would bring him to his true life’s passion – building telescopes and observing the heavens. Once Herschel began studying astronomy, it became an obsession to him.

Building Telescopes

In his house in England, Herschel began grinding lenses to construct small reflecting telescopes, those that use mirrors rather than a lens as the primary light-gathering element. These are known as Newtonian telescopes because they were originally designed by the Isaac Newton.

Starting with small 6- to 8-inch reflecting mirrors, Herschel was driven to build bigger mirrors with increasing light-gathering power. Herschel once said that his goal was to “see deeper into space than any other man.” Eventually he did.

Herschel’s hand-made telescopes – which were certainly the finest in Europe – grew ever larger, culminating with his behemoth 40-inch mirror reflector which would be the largest telescope in the world for years to come.

Herschel’s Contributions to Astronomy

In addition to discovering the planet Uranus, Herschel was among the first to catalog deep space. Based on thousands of observations made over several decades, he was the first to construct, or at least attempt to determine, the shape of the galaxy by showing where and how stars are distributed throughout space. He is also credited with discovering infrared solar radiation, among other accomplishments.

Herschel’s talents as an observational astronomer, a theoretician, a telescope maker and an accomplished musician brought him fame and renown. King George of England frequently invited him to personal meetings and provided him with generous financial support.

Herschel’s Later Years and Death

Despite his fame, status and genius, Herschel was well-known to be extremely charming, kind, personable and even a humble man. He continued to be involved with music throughout his career as an astronomer. He died at age 83 in 1822 in Slough, England, where he had lived for many years.

His only son, John Herschel, went on to become an astronomer and scientist of great skill. His devoted sister and lifetime observational assistant, Caroline Herschel, also became an accomplished astronomer in her own right.