Cover image for Tycho & Kepler : the unlikely partnership that forever changed our understanding of the heavens
Tycho & Kepler : the unlikely partnership that forever changed our understanding of the heavens
Ferguson, Kitty.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Walker & Co., [2002]

Physical Description:
xiv, 402 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color), maps ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
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QB36.B8 F47 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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On his deathbed in 1601, the Danish nobleman and greatest naked-eye astronomer, Tycho Brahe, begged his young colleague, Johannes Kepler, "Let me not seem to have lived in vain." For more than thirty years-- mostly in his native Denmark and then in Prague under the patronage of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II-- Tycho had meticulously observed the movements of the planets and the positions of the stars. From these observations he developed his Tychonic system of the universe-- a highly original, if incorrect, scheme that attempted to reconcile the ancient belief that the Earth stood still with Nicolaus Copernicus's revolutionary rearrangement of the solar system some fifty years earlier. Tycho knew that Kepler, the brilliant young mathematician he had engaged to interpret his findings, believed in Copernicus's arrangement, in which all the planets circled the Sun; and he was afraid his system-- the product of a lifetime of effort to explain how the universe worked-- would be abandoned.

In point of fact, it was. From his study of Tycho's observations came Kepler's stunning three Laws of Planetary Motion-- ever since the cornerstone of cosmology and our understanding of the heavens. Yet, as Kitty Ferguson reveals, neither of these giant figures would have his reputation today without the other. The story of how their lives and talents were fatefully intertwined is one of the more memorable sagas in the long history of science.

Set in a singularly turbulent and colorful era in European history, at the turning point when medieval gave way to modern, Tycho & Kepler is both a highly original dual biography and a masterful recreation of how science advances. From Tycho's fabulous Uraniborg Observatory on an island off the Danish coast to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II; from the religious conflict of the Thirty Years' War that rocked all of Europe to Kepler's extraordinary leaps of understanding, Ferguson recounts a fascinating interplay of science and religion, politics and personality. Her insights recolor the established characters of Tycho and Kepler, and her book opens a rich window onto our place in the universe.

Author Notes

Kitty Ferguson first became interested in mathematics, physics, and cosmology as a child growing up in Texas. After graduating from the Juilliard School and enjoying a career as a professional musician, she decided to devote herself to the writing of science

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

The history of science often involves brilliant minds in conflict with tyrannical religious and political powers-that-be, clashes that fascinate Ferguson, author of Measuring the Universe (1999). Such contention is the overarching theme of her savvy and animated paired portraits of two pioneering astronomers, the nonconformist Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe (1546^-1601) and the striving German genius Johannes Kepler (1571^-1630). Tycho, who lost most of his nose in a duel, rejected the cushy life to which he was entitled by marrying a commoner and went on to invent instruments that enabled him to perform observations of celestial events unprecedented in their accuracy, while Kepler struggled to escape the woes of a poor, dysfunctional family (his difficult mother was accused of witchcraft) to find outlets for his preternatural gifts for mathematics and revolutionary conceptual thinking. Ferguson's chronicling of the forces that brought these two stargazing mathematical wonders together in an uneasy yet ultimately fruitful alliance makes for highly dramatic reading and offers an arresting perspective on the practice of science in an era of capricious royal patronage and potentially fatal church interference. Tycho and Kepler's scientific achievements were nothing less than paradigm altering, and Ferguson's meticulous blend of biography, history, and science anchors their cosmic discoveries within a vital social context. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

The story of how Copernicus replaced the prevailing geocentric view of the universe with his heliocentric model is a familiar one. Less familiar are Tycho Brahe's contributions to astronomy and his influence on Johannes Kepler, who revolutionized 17th-century thinking about planetary movements. Science writer Ferguson's intellectual and cultural biography of these two seminal scientists provides a delightful, detailed look into the ways that each man developed his ideas about the universe. Brahe, a Danish nobleman, developed a variety of instruments for observing the heavens. In his observatory off the coast of Denmark, he built a magnificent armillary-an instrument that allowed him to construct his theory that Venus and Mercury orbit the Sun while the Sun and the outer planets orbit the unmoving Earth. In 1600, Brahe took on a brilliant young student named Kepler, whom Brahe asked to carry on his own work after his death. Though indebted to Brahe for his instruments and his detailed charts of the stars, ultimately Kepler departed from Brahe's views, confirming instead Copernicus's theory that all the planets orbit the Sun. More famously, he discovered that the planets had elliptical rather than circular orbit. Ferguson (Measuring the Universe) paints her picture of Brahe and Kepler in broad strokes, placing them among the political intrigues of their times and the conflict between religion and science. Her biography offers glimpses of two men completely enamored of the beauty of the stars and planets and their attempts to describe the world through the eyes of this great love. 16 color and 30 b&w illus., 2 maps. Library of Science Book Club alternate selection. (Jan. 30) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Ferguson (Measuring the Universe) continues to wield her gift as a popular science writer in this double biography of Renaissance astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. This watershed relationship in the history of science is fascinating for several reasons. Ferguson's subjects lived and worked during a turbulent time when medieval thought was starting to give way to modern concepts and a scientific explanation of the world. In his own way, each epitomized the new scientific method of careful observation of the facts (Tycho) and their interpretation or explanation based on rational, rather than religious, thought (Kepler). In addition, Tycho's and Kepler's lives are interesting in their own right. As with her earlier books, Ferguson has a wonderful ability not only to explain her topic and its significance but also to render the historical background in such a way that the participants do not seem to be either incredibly farsighted prophets or quaint characters fumbling for explanations. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries.-James Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ. Lib., Chicago (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Ferguson's title is appropriate: Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler had little in common beyond a passion to understand the universe. Brahe, the irascible and arrogant Danish nobleman, was one of the great observational astronomers of all time; Kepler, the shy and bumbling German commoner, was one of the great theorists. The conflicts between them during their brief time together resulted at least as much from these differences in social status and personality as from scientific issues. Nevertheless, this "unlikely partnership" changed the way humans viewed the heavens and paved the way for Newton to discover the universal laws of motion. The author does an excellent job of placing Brahe and Kepler in the context of the religious, political, and cultural struggles of late-16th- and early-17th-century Europe, and the story is an object lesson in the complexity of the scientific process. Clear explanations of relevant astronomical concepts combined with rich detail about the lives and scientific methods used by the astronomers make the book both a valuable introduction to the field and a useful reference for advanced researchers. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. All levels. T. Barker Wheaton College (MA)

Table of Contents

Map: Tycho's Denmarkp. ix
Map: Tycho and Kepler's Europep. xi
Acknowledgmentsp. xiii
Prologuep. 1
1. Legaciesp. 7
2. Aristocrat by Birth, Astronomer by Naturep. 24
3. Behavior Unbecoming a Noblemanp. 39
4. Having the Best of Several Universesp. 57
5. The Isle of Hvenp. 77
6. Worlds Apartp. 91
7. A Palace Observatoryp. 105
8. Adelberg, Maulbronn, Uraniborgp. 126
9. Contriving Immortalityp. 140
10. The Undermining of Human Endeavorp. 153
11. Years of Discontentp. 169
12. Geometry's Universep. 181
13. Divine Right and Earthly Machinationp. 200
14. Converging Pathsp. 213
15. Contactp. 231
16. Prague Opens Her Armsp. 243
17. A Dysfunctional Collaborationp. 252
18. "Let Me Not Seem to Have Lived in Vain"p. 266
19. The Best of Timesp. 286
20. Astronomia Novap. 304
21. The Wheel of Fortune Creaks Aroundp. 321
22. An Unlikely Harmonyp. 337
23. Measuring the Shadowsp. 352
Appendix 1 Angular Distancep. 359
Appendix 2 Vocabulary of Astronomyp. 361
Appendix 3 Kepler's Use of Tycho's Observations of Marsp. 363
Notesp. 369
Bibliographyp. 385
Art Creditsp. 389
Indexp. 391