The Island of Hven


In 1572 a nova appeared and triggered what led to the demise of Aristotelian cosmology. Tycho Brahe, a 26-year-old astronomer commented in his book The New Star that its appearance contradicted the model of an unchanging sky following the seventh day of creation because it showed no parallax, which meant that it was beyond the "seventh crystal sphere" and thus a part of the heavens. The King of Denmark read the book and was sufficiently impressed to give Tycho the Island of Hven, between Denmark and Sweden, shown here at the right.

Tycho built a baroque castle named "Uraniborg" which included underground observation posts to house his giant quadrants (the telescope had not yet been invented). The precision offered by these quadrants was ten times greater than that enjoyed by his contemporaries.

For the next 20 years Tycho and his assistants observed the stars and made measurements at the limit of precision of the tools available to him. In 1577 Tycho observed a comet which not only contradicted the traditional wisdom once again but which could be shown to be moving in an oval path and crossing the "crystal spheres", but there was no sound of breaking glass. One must remember that people's view of reality at that time was that they lived in a motionless centered "world" protected by the intervention of the Divinity to maintain the heavenly circular motion (and to watch over us), that there was air right up to the planets and to the heavens beyond and that this world had not changed since God got the whole thing going. The idea of "crystal spheres" was not a metaphor but very much a part of people's perception of reality. The nova of 1572 and the comet of 1577 offered the first solid evidence in the western world that the metaphysics of Aristotle as taught by the Church was wrong. Measurements of their positions hinted that the "world" would end up being much bigger than anyone could have guessed. Within the next half century, Johannes Kepler, using Tycho Brahe's data, showed that the planet Mars (and by extension the other planets as well) followed a predictable elliptical orbit around the sun, leading finally to the conclusion that there was no need for the angels to be fiddling and meddling with things up there. Planetary motion simply obeys a law of nature. What a disgusting development!

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