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
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