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Extreme StarsTycho & Kepler: The Unlikely Partnership that Forever Changed Our Understanding of the Heavens

Kitty Ferguson, Walker & Company, New York, 2003, 402 pages, $28.

In Association with Buy Tycho & Kepler: The Unlikely Partnership that Forever Changed Our Understanding of the Heavens at!

Reviewed by Terrell Kent Holmes

Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler were as disparate personalities as one can find. Tycho was a robust, combative, and egotistical man who had his nose severed in a duel. Kepler was born into a poor and dysfunctional family. He was highly religious and possibly a hypochondriac. Tycho was being groomed for the aristocracy, Kepler for the church. Neither man would fulfill those particular destinies, however, because they shared an unquenchable thirst for scientific knowledge.

Kitty Ferguson, author of previous books such as Measuring the Universe, The Fire in the Equations, and Stephen Hawking: Quest for a Theory of Everything, examines the lives of these remarkable men in Tycho & Kepler. This exhaustively researched and compelling book details the methods behind their respective manias and provides insight into the familial and social factors that led to the brief, symbiotic relationship that would assure their places in scientific and world history.

Tycho (1546-1601) was raised on the Ptolemaic tradition, which stressed an Earth-centered universe. After seeing one day that the Ptolemaic tables had failed to accurately predict a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, Tycho resolved to compile more accurate tables. As Ferguson notes, "The cocky sixteen-year-old concluded that someone ought to produce better tables, and he began to think of himself as the person destined to 'rectify this sorry state of affairs.'" This marked the beginning of a life devoted to gathering and cataloguing accurate astronomical data.

1572 was the watershed year in Tycho's life. He sighted the supernova in Cassiopeia (see "Tycho's Supernova," January/February 2003) that laid to rest the Aristotelian notion of the immutability of the cosmos. His book about the supernova, De Stella Nova (The New Star), put him on the scientific map and irreversibly on the path to an astronomical career. Noblemen such as Tycho were not supposed to pursue academia. "It was almost as unthinkable for a nobleman to move down the ladder as for a commoner to move up. It was not exactly forbidden; it just did not happen," writes Ferguson.

But Tycho cast off the bonds of class and rank to pursue what would become his life's passion. With the financial support of Danish King Frederick II, Tycho built the castle Uraniborg on the isle of Hven, a sort of unofficial university for astronomical observation. Uraniborg was a research facility, arboretum, and social center. The innovative instruments he designed there, including the sextant, bolstered his reputation throughout Europe as a master innovator.

For Kepler (1571-1630), a German, his astronomical epiphany occurred in 1595 when, while teaching a class, he was suddenly filled with causal questions concerning planetary motion as he drew a diagram of a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. He wanted to know why the planets were at the distances they were, why their orbits took a certain time, and why they traveled at specific velocities. He discovered that planets travel in elliptical orbits as well as the relationship between a planet's distance from the Sun and its orbital period. His desire to solve these problems led to Tycho. He believed the Tychonic system was wrong, but said nothing because he needed Tycho's help and did not want to risk offending him.

In 1596 Tycho's fortunes took a downturn. He had fallen out of favor with the new king, Christian IV, and eventually had to leave Uraniborg. Two years later Kepler, who was Lutheran, had to leave his home in Austria because of German persecution of Protestants. Fortunately, he had made an epistolary acquaintance with Tycho and in 1600 joined him in Prague. Kepler was understandably awestruck, as Ferguson recounts: "Tycho Brahe's mystique was as powerful as any monarch's, and to Kepler he probably seemed like a character from legend who had turned out to be real." The two men were together for only about two years, and their relationship was not always smooth, but their collaboration would ultimately lead to Kepler's three laws of planetary motion. Kepler's discoveries overruled the Tychonic system, and Tycho knew that his willingness to help Kepler would ultimately destroy part of his own legacy. But together they furthered the cause of astronomy in perpetuity.

Ferguson's writing style is lucid and imaginative, and she has succeeded in writing a scientific book that is neither boring nor dense. Her descriptions of the social and scientific climate of those times is interesting. The book is richly illustrated, and Ferguson is careful to provide detailed explanations of concepts that casual readers might not be familiar with. Tycho & Kepler will be a welcome addition to anyone's library. Even if one is not an astronomer or historian, this is a fine story about the lives of two extraordinary men.

Freelance writer TERRELL KENT HOLMES ( is a member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York. Besides writing about astronomy, he also writes about travel and jazz.


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