& Kepler: The Unlikely Partnership that Forever Changed Our
Understanding of the Heavens
Ferguson, Walker & Company, New York, 2003, 402 pages, $28.
Tycho & Kepler: The Unlikely Partnership that Forever Changed
Our Understanding of the Heavens at Amazon.com!
by Terrell Kent Holmes
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
writer TERRELL KENT HOLMES (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is a member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York.
Besides writing about astronomy, he also writes about travel and