Tycho and Kepler in the 520’s

Title: Tycho and Kepler: The Unlikely Partnership That Forever Changed Our Understanding of the Heavens
Source: library
Fun Fact:  The duel in which Tycho lost his nose may have been started by a man making fun of him because his astrological predictions didn’t come true.
Rating: ★★★★☆
Review Summary: A very in depth look at the lives and personalities of two interesting men.  Intriguing and well researched, but not for the faint of heart as this was not a light read.

Tycho and Kepler is a detailed biography of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, covering both their personal lives and their scientific careers.  It’s arranged in chronological order, smoothly transitioning between the two scientists.  I liked this format a lot because it made it so easy to see how their lives related to one another.  There was actually quite a lot of personal drama, although it was mostly presented an impersonal manner – enough so that I really want to read some historical fiction now to get a “first-person” perspective on this fascinating time period!

Another part of the story which was surprisingly prominent was the detailed description of the astronomical concepts involved in both Tycho’s and Brahe’s work.  There were a lot of informative figures used to help with these explanations, as well as an appendix of astronomy terms, but there were still some times when I felt a little lost.  I think part of the problem was that I don’t have much background knowledge of astronomical terms and they were used infrequently enough that I didn’t really pick them up as I read.  This meant a lot of flipping back and forth to the appendix and trying to figure out exactly what the author meant whenever they were used.

The scientific mindset of the time was explained much better, particularly the way Aristotle’s and Ptolemey’s work merged with Judeo-Christian beliefs to make it “obvious” the earth stood still while the planets orbited.  It was enough that I’m sure if I lived in that time period, I would have been convinced!  A very interesting point the author raised was they way in which scientists of the time approached astronomy.  Due to their inability to prove any of their theories, in judging the validity of any system they could only consider its’ ability to make predictions and its’ elegance.  They didn’t treat these systems as realistic models of the world, but as useful mathematical tools.  This, by the way, is part of the reason there wasn’t instantly a negative reaction from the church when Copernicus published his model.

Brahe and Kepler changed all that and in doing so changed the way we do science.  First Tycho insisted on accuracy in measurements to a degree unheard of in his day, to the extent that he had a 20 foot quadrant built for measuring stars’ altitudes, a process which required 40 men to move the quadrant!  And then Kepler, in an even more radical departure from previous work, insisted that a system be physically realistic not just mathematically convenient.  Fortunately, he had Tycho’s incredibly accurate measurements to work with, allowing him to distinguish between predictions made by the Copernican and Ptolemaic models of the solar system.

As you might have guessed, I loved the focus on what these two men did for science.  I also felt like I learned a lot reading this, which was particularly exciting given my initial difficulties placing the story in a historical and geographical context.  There may even be some tips on reading historical non-fiction later this week to help other readers new to historical non-fiction.  Finally, it was just a very interesting story… so interesting that I will be following this review with a review of Heavenly Intrigue, a lighter read sharing some new evidence that Kepler may actually have murdered Tycho in order to access his measurements!  In fact, I think I’m going to go read that now 🙂


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