Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Astronomer Lightkeeper

My close friends, and followers of my blog know that I love amateur astronomy. I worked in a planetarium for a number of years and have written several books of amateur astronomy and skywatching. My collection of astronomy books is nearly as larger as my collection of lighthouses books. Thus, when astronomy and pharology intersect, I am thrilled!

Check out this page below from my out-of-print Lighthouse Almanac. It talks about Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), one of history's renowned astronomers. He was in charge of two Dutch/Swedish lighthouses for twenty years. Tomorrow, December 14, 2016 would be his 470th birthday!

Click on the image to make it larger.

Some additional thoughts on Tycho:
  • His name, Tycho, was a nickname of sorts, derived from the Greek goddess of fortune, Tyche. A Dutch king gave him the name because he cast excellent, seemingly accurate horoscopes. In Tycho's day, astronomy was not separate from astrology, so astronomers did horological forecasts. These provided some income and also kept astronomers in good graces with kings and other royalty. I don't think Tycho actually believed in his horoscopes. He used them to fund his observatory work and to keep his constituents happy. He was a pretty smart guy, so I doubt he bought into the ideas of astrology.

  • The lighthouses in Tycho's care were called fyrs, or basket fires. Kullen Light was set up in 1560, an iron basket with a wood fire. Falserbo Light originally was established in the 1200s by monks who burned a wood brazier on the shore to guide mariners. In 1635 it was changed to coal, a fuel recently discovered in Sweden. It's likely Kullen Light was coal-fired at this time too.

  • Tycho's death in 1601 in Prague is the subject of much debate. He was only 54 years old and reportedly healthy. Some believe Johannes Kepler poisoned Tycho in order to get hold of the great man's research. I doubt this. The men were friends. Tycho's observations were shared with Kepler before Tycho died. Kepler was a math whiz, able to convert Tycho's observations into planetary laws that still hold true today. Both men had talents and combined them to make awesome discoveries.

  • For a time, historians thought Tycho was poisoned with mercury, and indeed it was found in some of his exhumed remains in the 1990s. (We lighthouse aficionados know all about mercury positioning, since the dense liquid was used to support lenses and allow them to revolve effortlessly.) Further work on Tycho's remains showed a scant amount of mercury--not enough to kill Tycho. Instead, CT and MRI examination of his body showed his bladder had burst and killed him. He had been at a banquet a few days prior to his death and had declined to get up from the banquet table and use the bathroom thinking it would offend his host. He was in great pain that evening and thereafter until his death a few days later. My take-away from this story? Excuse yourself, and use the loo!

  • Both Kullen and Falsterbo now boast modern lighthouses with modern optics. Tycho would be amazed to see how modern-day lighthouses work!

A map Tycho drew of Hven, his Dutch/Swedish island and home to his observatory, Uraniborg. Both images above from Wikimedia Commons.

A statue of Tycho stands in the modern garden now planted where his observatory once stood on the island of Hven. He was shown looking up, of course. Hven once belonged to Denmark, then was given to Sweden. Today, it's a lovely, rural island with farms and fields. A museum on the island is dedicated to Tycho. Image above found on YOONIQ Images website.

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