MGMT 1050 Lecture Notes - Lecture 5: Optical Illusion, Radiography, Astronomia Nova

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20 Jul 2016
CH 5 – The New Solar System
Page 102
The alchemist leaned back from the esoteric books on his bench, stretched and Th alchemist leaned back
from the esoteric books on his bench, stretched looked around. To one side, an assistant was pumping at
the bellows, raising the flames that heated a crucible containing a few drops of precious molten metal. To
the other, another servant was carefully watching a graceful curved glass alembic, dripping a thin stream
of pale yellow fluid. But it was now time for dinner. And this alchemist was no impoverished seeker
B E L O W Though remembered today as a great astronomer, Tycho Brahe devoted much of his time to
alchemy, in an Underground laboratory like this depiction by the sixteenth century Flemish artist
Johannes Stradanus. after truth, not a beggar for his crust as he was for knowledge.
The 25-year-old Tycho Brahe was a clansman of the most powerful families of the day. His relatives
controlled the Kingdom of Denmark - and, to all intents and purposes, controlled the King himself.
Tycho's laboratory was an underground annex to his uncle's grand house, the monastery of Herrevad. It
was no longer a place of worship. All over northern Europe in the sixteenth century, monarchs and
powerful courtiers had wrested monasteries from the Church and turned then into palatial homes.
Tycho imperiously cast his glance around. Everything seemed to be in order. Climbing the stairs to
ground level, he had to pull his coat tightly around himself as he was struck by the chill evening air.
For several days, the weather had been muggy, unseasonably warm and cloudy. Tonight, though, the sky
was clear and brilliant. And as Tycho glanced up, he was ir for an even bigger surprise.
And 'surprise' is a definite understatement. What Tycho Brahe saw on that evening, November 11, 1572,
would transform his life. More importantly, it would change forever our view of the heavens, and
humankind's understanding of the Universe.
Almost directly overhead, Tycho saw a dazzling point of light. It lay in the constellation of Cassiopeia, a
W-shape of five stars supposed to represent an ancient Queer -if Ethiopia. But the new object far
outshone these ancient stars.
'Amazed and as if astonished and stupefied,' he later recalled, 'I was led into such perplexity by the
unbelievability of the thing that I began to doubt the faith o my own eyes.'
He turned to the servants behind him and told them to direct their gaze heavenwards. They agreed there
was a bright star overhead. But the overbearing L Tycho was perhaps too used to his servants being'yes-
men.' So he stopped a passing carriage and asked the country people on board. 'These people shouted
out that the saw that huge star, which had never been noticed.' The new star struck at the very roots
of science. Tycho lived in a time when scholars believed the ancient Greeks Aristotle and Ptolemy, who
had taught that to · Earth was the centre of the Universe, circled by the Moon, Sun, planets and star
More recently, Nicolaus Copernicus had proposed that the Sun should take cent ^
stage, in place of the Earth.
But whatever astronomers thought of Copernicus, they still followed Aristotle one of his key teachings.
There was a fundamental difference between what happens
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Page 103
on Earth and events in the sky. In our own surroundings things change, and things decay. But the
heavens are perfect: the stars and planets move in their pre-ordained paths, for eternity. Nothing in the
Universe can ever change.
Yet here was a change in the sky that was absolutely blatant. Only one explanation would fit with
Aristotle's dogma: what appeared to be a star was actually in the Earth's atmosphere - with its inconstant
parade of clouds, rainbows and other meteorological phenomena.
Tycho was the man to check this out. Although he was largely engrossed in alchemy at this time, Tycho
was at heart an astronomer: he even called alchemy 'terrestrial astronomy,' believing that the reactions
that fizzed or fumed in his flasks were a mirror of the interactions between the planets and the stars.
In his excitement over the new star, Tycho immediately brought out his cross-staff, a simple wooden
device that he could use to measure the distance between two stars. In turn, he checked the celestial
interloper's distance from each of the five major stars of Cassiopeia.
Over the next few nights, he repeated the observations over and over again, at all times of night. During
the dark hours, Cassiopeia and its brilliant star wheeled around the Pole Star, from high in the east to due
south, and ending up low in the northwest as the dawn came up.
And however hard Tycho tried to measure any movement at all, the star remained obstinately fixed in its
place in the constellation. As Tycho persistently came up with a negative result, he realised just what it
L E F T Portrait of Tycho Brahe at the age of 40, published as the frontispiece of his Astronomical Letters.
The bridge of his nose appears slightly distended, because it is metal replacement for flesh severed in a
duel. Fortunately Tycho's eyes survived the encounter, as he became the greatest observational
astronomer of his era.
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O P P O S I T E Tycho steps out of his underground laboratory, and spots a brilliant new star in the sky
This later engraving may dramatise the impact on the bystanders, but the supernova of 1572 was pivotal
in overthrowing ancient concepts of the Universe.
From the time of the Greeks, astronomers had been aware that perspective shifts the position of the
Moon in the sky, during the course of the night. (This is in addition to the Moon's own motion around the
sky, once a month.) Our changing viewpoint on the Moon makes it appear to move, just as the position of
a fly on your window seems to shift against the background if you view it with one eye, and then the other.
If the new star lay in the Earth's atmosphere, it should seem to shift overnight even more than the Moon.
Tycho knew what parallax the Moon shows: it appears to shift by almost twice its own width. In contrast,
the new star moved by less than one-thirtieth the width of the Moon. So it must lie dozens of times farther
away than the Moon - out with the planets or the stars. Because the star didn't move like the nearer
planets, Tycho argued it must lie out in the realms of the stars: in Aristotle's cosmology, the uppermost or
eighth sphere. In Tycho's own words, 'this new star is not located in the upper regions of the air just under
the lunar orb, nor in any place closer to Earth, but far above the sphere of the Moon in the eighth
So the science of Tycho's time was wrong. The stars were not constant and immortal. Like things on
Earth, the celestial realm was subject to change. As Tycho's star dimmed over the next year, it was clear
that even the heavens could experience decay.
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Tycho had proved that the heavens and the Earth were not different. His measurement of the new star of
1572 was the thin end of a wedge of increasingly accurate measurement that would plumb deeper and
deeper into space, and eventually prove that our world is but a small and insignificant part of a vast
Universe, where laws of nature rule planets, stars, galaxies and the Cosmos alike.
The great Dane had begun a lifetime of scientific research, which would lead astronomers to break the
mould of the heavens. And Tycho led a correspondingly unconventional and larger than life existence,
right from his birth...
The Danish astronomer was born in 1546, just three years after Copernicus had died - promoting on his
death-bed the mind-blowing concept that the Earth circles the Sun. His father, Otte Brahe, was a leading
noble in the Danish court and his mother, Beate Bille, came from an equally aristocratic family.
Beate gave birth to twins. The first-born was christened Tyge: when he became a serious scholar around
the age of 15, Tyge followed the usual custom and turned his name into a suitably academic Latin form,
as Tycho. The second twin died. But Tycho never forgot his twin brother, and later said that he achieved
so much in life because he was doing the work of two.
When Tycho was a year and half old, his life took an even stranger turn. While his parents were away
from their home at Knutstorp Castle (now in southern Sweden, but then part of the Kingdom of Denmark),
his uncle J^0rgen Brahe came to call - and kidnapped the young Tycho. It meant that Tycho enjoyed all
the attention of an only child, for his uncle and aunt never had any children of their own.
This curious twist of family history helped to create the scholar who probed the depths of the Universe.
His foster mother, Inger Oxe, came from an intellectual family.
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While Tycho's natural parents would have propelled him into a career as a diplomat and courtier, Inger
pushed the young Tycho towards a university education.
In those days, students didn't specialise. Tycho had to study everything from mathematics to Hebrew, and
music to rhetoric. But the study of the heavens was the subject that caught his soul: both astronomy - and
At the time, most scholars believed that the heavens must have an influence on the Earth. Certainly the
Sun affects our lives, the passing seasons and the crops in the field. The Moon was responsible for the
tides, though no-one knew the reason. Tycho himself argued that God would hardly have created the vast
and complex wonders of the heavens unless they had some role to play in the life of his greatest creation,
human beings.
Allan Chapman puts Tycho's belief in astrology into perspective. 'Ancient wisdom attributed particular
virtues to planets: for instance, Jupiter was jolly, Mars was rapacious and violent. Particular houses of the
Zodiac had particular characteristics. So he wasn't being superstitious or silly. Astrology was part of their
culture in the same way that motor cars are part of ours.'
A B 0 V E Until Tycho's time, scholars believed the planets were carried on solid crystalline spheres,
ce~^ktred on the Earth. Religious authorities taught that angels provided the propulsion. Tycho's
observations would prove that solid spheres couldn't exist in the heavens.
Tycho's passion was kindled by an eclipse in 1560; and fired by a close approach of the planets Jupiter
and Saturn three years later. And he then did something unknown for a young aristocrat. He got hold of a
large pair of wooden compasses, and used them to make his own measurements of the two celestial
bodies as they closed with each other.
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