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Ms. Ferguson has at least given herself a chance by writing a very good book. Her prose is very engaging. She is detailed both science and biography and yet she is quite easy to understand even for those without a scientific background. And she has two extraordinarily interesting characters to talk about--Brahe, the rather spoiled Danish aristocrat who brought glory to himself against the odds in a "ignoble" profession by becoming the greatest naked eye astronomer in history, and Kepler, the poor German Protestant school teacher who had a knack for doing mathematics and finding trouble.
Though I knew the broad outline of Brahe and Kepler's story, I was surprised again and again by all I did not know. I may not be able to incorporate it all into my classes but I am glad to know the story myself. It is always interesting to see how the great ideas came into being, mostly through more fits, starts and mistakes than most people realize. Anyone interested in scientific history would be foolish to pass up reading this book.
Tycho was a Danish nobleman, and was not supposed to have a career, much less a scientific one. His pursuit of documentation of the heavens was a rebellious break with the traditions of his society. He began keeping a logbook of astronomical observations when he was sixteen years old, and complained even then of the inaccuracy of the tables which were supposed to tell planetary positions. He also railed about the imprecision of the cross staff by which angular distance between stars was measured. Tycho was not satisfied with the Copernican system, although he knew the Earth-centered Ptolemaic one was wrong. He proposed the "Tychonic" system, wherein the Sun orbited the Earth, and the other planets orbited the Sun. He was welcomed by Emperor Rudolf II of the Holy Roman Empire, who supported him in making a new observatory in Prague, but he died only four years later. Kepler's start was far different. Born near Stuttgart in 1571 into a peculiar and unnurturing commoner family, he was essentially rescued by the church. The Protestants were urging the importance of schooling, and he originally wanted to become a Lutheran minister. However, he became interested in the ideas of Copernicus, and became a mathematician and mathematics teacher in Graz. Religious persecution drove him out of Graz, and Tycho extended an invitation to join him in Prague. The invitation resulted in a year of stormy misunderstandings. The odd couple argued constantly, and Kepler at one point walked out. Tycho did not always show magnanimity, but in this case he relented, and became a little more generous with data. Only after Tycho's death did Kepler get all the data he needed, to start making his epochal laws of planetary movement. Kepler, building on Tycho's data, was one of the giants on whose shoulders Newton was to stand, giving us calculus and modern physics and cosmology.
Both Tycho and Kepler were largely working in a vacuum; there was no set scientific tradition for them to be working in, and at times they were more highly valued for their expertise in astrology; though both of them knew astronomy was more valuable, astrology sometimes paid the bills. Getting financial support from kingdoms was difficult and unreliable; at one point Ferguson writes, "Rudolph lavished praise on Kepler and granted him a bonus of two thousand talers, which would have been splendid had it been paid." Not only were they working against a religious tradition, but they were operating in societies ruled largely by religion and superstition. Kepler was extremely devout, but was chivied from place to place in his later years because he refused to insist on religious requirements for others. Kepler's mother herself was tried for witchcraft. Locating Tycho and Kepler firmly within their religious and political milieus, and demonstrating the enormous difficulty of doing science in their time, and in getting appreciation and support, Ferguson has given a wonderfully complex picture of the partnership of two main founders of astronomy.
But what's equally interesting are the life and times of these two scientists in the context of 17th Century daily life. Ferguson researches her subject and provides the reader with a story that is a cross between a soap opera and a historical fiction novel. Brahe's castle and observatory were not only architecturally interesting, the life inside the walls was fraught with nasty doings. Brahe, by all reports, had quite the temper. He may have even invented the modern day graduate student-slavey; he kept associates of lower social rank under his thumb for years, paid them a pittance, assigned them menial work, stole their intellectual property and literally imprisoned them in his palace.
If you have an interest in astronomy or philosophy or just plain European history from this era, you should read this. I couldn't put it down. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
This is not an "easy" read for the lay person, but will be rewarding eventually with a little determination.
In the case of Tycho Brahe, truth is both stranger and more entertaining than any fiction that has been created about him. For example, he did not die of a burst bladder following a night of excessive drinking. But he did die of uremia caused most likely by an enlarged prostate which prevented urination. His dying words to Kepler, "let me not seem to have lived in vain", could not have been scripted better for a man who sought immortality through science.
Readers should be aware that this book is not written in a style intended for the general public. It is a work of historical scholarship, and is packed with the kind of detail that some may find trivial. However, the sheer weight of these historical records (letters and official documents) helps to create a vivid and convincing portrait of this unique individual.
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Diane C. Donovan