Astronomers odd or not?

posted: 3184 days ago, on Wednesday, 2009 Mar 04 at 22:11
tags: astronomy, psychology, history.

I've often wondered if astronomers (both those who get paid and those who don't) are an odd bunch. Or rather, if they are any more odd than, say, ichthyologists or paleo-botanists.

I don't know of any psychological data to support the idea that astronomers are particularly weird. So I'd like to call as my first witness one Mr Tycho Brahe.

"Tea-koh bra-hee" was a 16th century Danish nobleman who had the best observatory in the world. After all, it cost his liege, Frederick II, king of Denmark, one-third of his kingdom's annual income. But that was in 1581.

Back in 1546, Tycho was born. On his second birthday he was kidnapped by his uncle, Jorgen, who then adopted him. Jorgen was a good pal of king Frederick the Second, and this cost him his life. One evening, after a drinking spree, the two went for a stroll. The royal foot slipped and the king fell into the ocean. Fortunately, Jorgen was Vice-Admiral of the Danish fleet, so he dived into the icy water and saved the royal ass. Unfortunately, Jorgen contracted pneumonia which eventually did him in.

Meanwhile, the young Tycho was being preened for a career in politics. However, a solar eclipse during his 13th year left a lasting impression. It wasn't the spectacle as such that impressed him, but rather the fact that it could be predicted. Over the next few years his interest in astronomy grew. As a 15-year old he owned the two most advanced books on astronomy and studied them covertly at night. Literally under the blankets by candle light.

As a young man, he studied at the best universities, and designed and built very expensive devices for astronomical measurements. He also lived out the Brahe family tradition of duels to the death.

Uncle Jorgen had killed Tycho's nephew in a duel, Jorgen's brother had died in one, and one of Tycho's nephews killed another. The atmosphere at the Christmas dinner table must have been strained. In fact, one day at the lunch table, when Tycho was 20, he got into an argument with his cousin about who was the better mathematician. Instead of expanding a polynomial or squaring the circle to settle matters, they resorted to a duel. Tycho won the match, but a glancing sword blow cut off his nose.

Rhinoplasty was not very advanced in the 16th century, but that didn't deter our hero. Tycho had a prosthetic nose made, out of gold. When he was later buried in the cathedral at Prague, in 1601, is was nose-and-all, allowing curious Czech scientists to dig him up 300 years later and confirm that his nose was indeed made of gold, alloyed with silver and copper.

Some 20,000 years before Tycho lost his nose, around the time when cavemen were practicing their rock graffiti, a catastrophe shattered the peace of deep space. A massive star collapsed and went supernova, and for a while its light shone more brightly than a hundred billion stars. That light travelled through space to arrived in Denmark just as the 26 year old Tycho had finished having his supper, on the evening of November 11, 1572.

Strolling to his observatory, digesting his meal, Tycho happened to look up as astronomers are wont to do. To his utter amazement, a bright new star shone in the heavens above. He called his servants to check if they, too, were seeing the same thing. I can only imagine his excitement when the lackeys concurred, although I can't imagine them disagreeing with their gold-nosed master.

Supernovae weren't entirely unknown there had been two previous new stars, in 1006 and again in 1054. But astronomers regarded them as transient, like comets, and of no great importance. Tycho, however, set to work and carefully measured the newcomer's position with his fine instruments. He determined that the object was stationary, and finally published his results as a book.

People didn't know what to make of this new star. All across Europe tongues were wagging. The German painter George Busch (yes, laugh) warned that the star predicted terrible things, including the advent of horrible weather, the pestilence, and the French.

Tycho's new book won him international acclaim and established him as an astronomer of note. It also impressed King Frederick, who had taken a shine to Tycho as a youngster. He was so impressed, in fact, that he offered to build Tycho a brand new observatory with all the mod-cons. Tycho flat ignored the offer. Instead, he set off on a whirl-wind tour of Europe.

Tycho visited kings and heads of state, almost anyone who ruled over something. And he let each of them understand that he, Tycho Brahe, a prince and the world's best astronomer, would be prepared to consider them as his patron, if they built him a grand observatory. In reality, Tycho wanted to remain in Denmark, of course. His ploy worked and King Frederick upped the stakes. His Highness offered Tycho the island of Hven, including all state property, the right to collect taxes, and so on. Furthermore, the king would pay for the construction of a castle for Tycho, as well as a fully-equipped chemical laboratory, a printing press with its own paper mill, a game reserve, a library and of course the world's best observatory, equipped with the best instruments known to man.

Tycho let the king wait for two weeks before responding. Uraniborg, as he called his castle-observatory, would end up costing one-third of the kingdom of Denmark's annual income around 30 billion Rands in today's money.

In exchange for this princely sum, Tycho undertook to unravel the mysteries of the Universe. With his new instruments, and meticulous observing methods, Tycho produced observations 10 times more accurate than hitherto available.

Tycho's observations made it possible for Johannes Kepler to derive his three laws of planetary motion, explaining for the first time the movement of the Earth and other planets around the Sun.

And there, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.

nothing more to see. please move along.