Yesterday’s In our Time was very disappointing, the more so since I had been looking forward to it all week. The subject was Tycho Brahe, the last great naked-eye astronomer. He was a Danish nobleman with a false nose (he lost the original in a duel) who built a magic castle on the island of Hven where he established a number of the most accurate instruments for making naked-eye observations; telescopes had not yet been invented. His observations of the position of the planet Mars over a period of twenty years were so accurate that Kepler was able to use them to show that the orbit was elliptical rather than circular. The difference between the two orbits was only 20 minutes of arc—a third of a degree—but Kepler knew that Tycho’s measurements were reliable, and was able to deduce his planetary laws. These enabled the positions of the planets to be calculated with a high degree of accuracy, and the true scale of the solar system to be determined for the first time.
Hardly any of this was mentioned in the programme. The three academics assembled to discuss Tycho produced a positive masterclass of how to make a truly fascinating subject as dull as ditch water. There was loads of tedious detail about the political and religious background—not unimportant, but background material nevertheless, and the wonderful uniqueness of Tycho’s magic castle of Uraniborg was demoted to that of an ‘observatory’. No mention of his observations of Mars. Most disappointing.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs