Thanks to Grandma Got STEM contributor Else Hoyrup from Denmark for this post about the Danish astronomer, scholar and writer, Sophie Brahe (born in 1556 or 1559, died in 1643). The portrait (above) was painted shortly after her first husband, Otte Thott, died in 1588.
Sophie and Tycho Brahe:
A Story from the History of Science and the History of Life
Sophie on both sides came from a noble family of great wealth, power and high rank. Her father was State Councilor Otto Brahe (1518-1571) and her mother was Beate Bille (1526-1605).
Sophie and her elder brother Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) were part of a family of ten. Their paternal uncle, Jorgen Brahe (1515-1565) had no children, but wanted so much to have a son that some sources say he almost abducted Tycho to get his own son. Thus, Tycho did not grow up with Sophie, but with his uncle. Besides, Tycho was much older than Sophie.
As is well-known, Tycho Brahe (Tycho is the Latin version of the Danish first name, Tyge) later became a world-famous astronomer, an important link in the chain of the era, we now call The Scientific Revolution:
Copernicus – Tycho Brahe – Kepler – Galilei – Newton
But the destiny of Tycho’s little sister, Sophie, is not so well-known, as she deserves. She too was a great personality, both intellectually, as a person and a woman. So that is why, we now write about Sophie on this blog.
Because the family belonged to the high nobility, they were mostly interested in power, money and honor. Tycho’s paternal, guardian uncle was no exception. He wanted Tycho to get an academic training as a lawyer. The uncle’s goal with Tycho was to train him, so that he could obtain a powerful position with the King- and thus the State. At that time the King and the State were almost the same in Denmark.
But Tycho and his little sister Sophie had completely different interests. They were not interested in the “normal” life of a nobleman and a noblewoman. Instead, both developed a burning interest in astronomy. To become a professional astronomer, Tycho had to reject his families’ wishes and that was difficult enough. But the restrictions on Sophie were even greater, because she was a woman. Among other things, Sophie was not allowed to learn Latin, the contemporary international language, especially among learned men. This later gave Sophie problems, when she wanted to be a learned woman herself.
Tycho, the Astronomer
Only one member of the family (besides Sophie, when she grew up) supported Tycho’s wishes: Their maternal uncle, Steen Bille (1527-1586). But we do not know if this uncle also supported Sophie’s life choices.
Tycho was sent by his paternal, guardian uncle to the University of Copenhagen at the age of 12 in 1559. His uncle ordered him to study the normal curriculum, which only contained a little astronomy. In 1562, Tycho was sent by this uncle on his first trip abroad to study in Leipzig. Although the uncle sent a chaperone with Tycho to make sure Tycho stuck to orders and spent all his time and all the money on studying jurisprudence, the willful Tycho instead managed to spend most of his time and money on astronomy. He bought many astronomical instruments and even started to make his own. He also bought many fine textbooks on astronomy and, most important, he started making his own observations.
With the death of his guardian uncle in 1565, Tycho gained more freedom. In the years 1569-70, he worked as an astronomy assistant to two brothers in Augsburg in Germany, who were keen amateurs. At that time, most scientists could be called “amateurs”, because most of them were not paid for their work.
After his biological father’s death in 1571, Tycho lived mostly with his maternal uncle, Steen Bille, whom, as we know, supported Tycho’s serious interest in astronomy.
On 11 November 1572, Tycho discovered a new star in the constellation Cassiopeia. He called it ”Nova Stella”, “The New Star” in Latin. In 1573 he published his first book “De Nova Stella”. Today we know that the new star was a supernova. These events made Tycho a world-famous astronomer at one stroke. What is especially interesting for us, who study Sophie, is that it is known that she already helped her brother with the observations of this new star, while she was still a young and unmarried girl.
Sophie, the Noblewoman and Astronomy Enthusiast
As a young woman, in 1579 Sophie was married off to a rich and powerful nobleman, Otte Thott (1543-1588). We don’t know if there was any love in the marriage. But in 1580, they had a son, Tage Thott, who became a State Councilor, like Sophie’s father. Tage grew up loving his mother and later he was one of her few supporters. He died in 1658.
When Otte Thott died in 1588, Sophie gained greater freedom as a widow. At that time, young girls were under the supervision of their fathers, until they came under the supervision of their husbands, when they were married. Only as widows, sadly enough, did women have any freedom.
Sophie managed the estate for her son, when he was little, and she was good at it. Among other things, she created a wonderful garden. She also had more opportunity to study her beloved subjects: Astronomy, astrology, chemistry, alchemy and medicine. At that time, there were no clear boundaries between what we today call science and pseudoscience.
When Tycho “got” the Island Ven as a fief from the King (see next section), Sophie often visited him there and helped with the observations.
The Fame of Tycho
The King of Denmark, Frederick 2, who reigned from 1559 to 1588, was a great admirer of Tycho as an astronomer. The King thought that if he supported Tycho, he, the King himself, would get a new feather in his cap to show off internationally. So in 1576, the King “gave” Tycho the Ven Island as a fief and also other economic subsidies. All in all, Tycho’s total allowances amounted to between 1% and 2% of the total income of the Danish State at that time! In many ways, Tycho’s “institution” at the Ven Island was the first European “big science” institution. There had been others before, though, in Antiquity and in the Muslim World.
All Tycho had to do in exchange, was to deliver astronomical almanacs and horoscopes to the court. But Tycho himself didn’t really believe in astrology – in contrast to his sister, Sophie. So it was easy money for Tycho, especially because he didn’t take care of his fief and was cruel to the serfs on the island.
On Ven, Tycho built two small castles (“borg” in Danish): Uranienborg (Urania=the muse of astronomy) in 1580 and Star Borg (Stjerneborg) in 1584. He created wonderful and well-equipped observatories in both of the castles: Above the ground in the first, Uranienborg, and below the ground in Stjerneborg. The second feature had proven to be necessary, in order that the instruments could stand stable, when there was wind.
The Loving Support and Inspiration Between Sophie and Tycho
At Ven, Tycho had many employees and assistants, including Sophie and two other women. Sophie came to Ven as often as possible, because she liked to be together with her brother and liked to help him with the observations. Tycho had high respect for her abilities.
Tycho also had many foreign visitors at Ven, so also in this respect Ven looked similar to modern scientific institutions. Sophie too fitted into these international gatherings, because she was both intellectually curious and social. She was also held in high respect by the international visitors.
The alliance between the sister and brother was especially important to both of them, because the rest of their family turned their backs on them. Throughout their lives, the siblings were each other’s greatest supporters.
The Destiny of Tycho
When the old king in Denmark died in 1588, he was succeeded by his 11 year old son, Christian 4, who reigned from 1588 to 1648. The new king was not a friend of astronomy, nor a friend of Tycho. The king thought, especially as he grew older and became independent of his guardians, that Tycho failed to fulfill his fief duties on the Ven Island – which was correct! The king also thought that his father had been far too generous to Tycho by giving him extremely large allowances. This wasn’t incorrect either. Third, but not least, the king did not like Tycho personally, because both of them were extremely strong-willed and strong-headed. But it was the king who was the boss when he became adult.
In 1596 when Christian was 19 and declared to have authority of the throne, he gradually took all the allowances from Tycho, including Ven. At Ven, Tycho had worked happily and prolifically for almost 20 years. After the quarrel, Tycho was forced to emigrate – with all his family, household, instruments, books and many of his assistants. He ended up in Prague in Czechoslovakia at the court of emperor Rudolph 2.
In Prague, Tycho found a young and brilliant assistant, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). Tycho had been a great pioneer in making new, comprehensive and accurate astronomical observations. He was the first astronomer who didn’t just take the observations of the ancients as accurate, and insisted on making his own, new and independent observations. Yet despite all of his accuracy, he was not able to see any “parallax”, as there should have been, if the new theory of Copernicus was right. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) had got the bold and brilliant new idea that it is not the Sun, which goes around the Earth. It is the other way round: The Earth and the other planets go round the Sun.
It was not Tycho’s fault that he was skeptical about Copernicus’ new world view. At that time, there was no knowledge of how far away the objects in the sky actually are. So with the measuring techniques of those days before the invention of the telescope, Tycho had no possibility to discover any parallax. He was as accurate as was at all possible at that time. And he was a brilliant experimentalist.
But Kepler did believe in Copernicus. Kepler’s genius was to combine Copernicus’ theory with Tycho’s observations. In particular Kepler’s genius was to do a lot of intricate mathematical calculations, especially about the orbit of the planet Mars, where Tycho had done a lot of fine observations. Thus Kepler created his three famous laws about the movements of the planets.
If one should summarize the development in astronomy in the beginning of what now is called The Scientific Revolution, and if one should summarize the contributions of Copernicus, Tycho and Kepler respectively, I (that is Else Hoyrup, the author) could form the “formula”:
Copernicus came up with the bold, new theory. He was a theorist.
Tycho came up with the world’s best observations, before the advent of the telescope. He was an experimentalist and a practician.
Kepler was the great mathematician, who skillfully combined Copernicus and Tycho, while making a synthesis of their work.
Thus I could (humorously) write the shorthand equation:
Copernicus + Tycho = Kepler
Sadly enough, Tycho died already in 1601, after only one year and a half of collaboration with Kepler. Tycho was 54 years old, when he died. This was considered a fairly advanced age at that time. Tycho and his wife, Christina, who died in 1604, were both buried in the Tyn Church in Prague.
In a way, it proved to be good luck for posterity that Tycho was forced to move to Prague, even if Tycho was not happy himself about the emigration. Otherwise the chance of collaboration with the perfect successor, Kepler, and Kepler’s chance to continue in Tycho’s position after Tycho’s death, might not have happened. But this is of course speculation.
The Destiny of Sophie
After the death of her first husband in 1588, Sophie met another man at the “court” of Tycho on the Ven Island. It was Eric Lange (1554-1613). He too was a nobleman, but he had become penniless, because he was an addicted to alchemy. That is, he tried to get easy money by way of alchemy. In particular, he wanted to chemically “make gold”. This, we now know, was impossible. The only results Eric Lange got were first that he lost all the money he had had to start with. But this did not stop him. Then he went on to borrow money from everybody. But as he was unable to pay back the loans, he got more and more desperately in debt and had to run from one place to another in Europe, to avoid his creditors.
But, as it happens, despite all this, Sophie fell madly and rather hopelessly in love with Eric Lange. It was difficult for her to “get hold of” this man, who was the only man, she had ever really loved. But she had a will-power of her own. In 1594, Tycho and Sophie wrote a long, beautiful Latin poem about her longings for her lover. The poem was called Urania Titani. Urania=the muse of astronomy=Sophie, Titan=Eric Lange. Over the years, philological scholars have debated, who was the “true” author of the poem. Was it Sophie herself, writing about her innermost feelings, or was it Tycho?
Whereas Tycho had been “allowed” to learn Latin and Latin poetry, this had not been “allowed” to Sophie by their family, because she was a woman. This later became a handicap to her, as she grew up to be an otherwise learned and versatile woman. She was also capable of feeling great love for the people, she really loved: Tycho, her son Tage, and her lover Eric Lange.
Today, most learned classic linguists have formed the judgment that Tycho was the one and only author of this long and beautiful Latin poem. But I must say, like a minority of linguists, that as far as I look at the matter as a woman, who is also a scholar and a loving woman, like Sophie herself, it might as well have originated from a collaboration between Sophie and Tycho. After all, the poem is about her very private, innermost feelings.
After much chasing through Europe, Sophie at last found her lover in a small, German town, Eckernförde, where they got married in 1602, a year after Tycho’s death in Prague. They lived together in extreme poverty because the expenses of his addiction to alchemy also depleted all the money, she had. And now they had to flee from one place to another together.
At last Eric Lange died in 1613. It may look as a sad story, but after all, he was her passion for life. What he felt, besides his obsession with trying to make gold, I do not know.
But Sophie still had a new life left. She lived to become a very old lady and she ended her days in Elsinore in Denmark, the home town of Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) Hamlet (1600-01). Shakespeare belonged to the same historical era as Sophie and Tycho.
In Elsinore, Sophie continued with her old interests, research in science (astronomy, chemistry and medicine), as well as her interests in, what we now call, the pseudo-sciences astrology and alchemy. At that time there were no clear boundaries and, besides, Sophie was more of a believer than Tycho in the pseudo-sciences, although she was not as much of an addict to alchemy as her second husband.
Sophie also did a lot of work in genealogy and wrote many genealogical histories, some of which are preserved to our day. It is a bit ironic that although she had hated much of her noble-family for most of her life, the whole idea of her genealogical project was to study exactly her ancestors and her own family among the nobility.
As she was totally poor, during the time she was living in Germany and other European countries, she must have had some financial support from some family members in order to live for so many years in Elsinore, neither poor, nor rich. Someone must have taken pity on her, maybe her son Tage Thott, who had always loved his mother and who had by now become rich and powerful himself. Maybe a sister or a sister-in-law had taken pity on her after all these years. As we know, Tycho had already died in 1601. In Elsinore, she had a beautiful house, which is still there.
Sophie, like Tycho, developed a great talent for writing. Although there was much hatred between Sophie and most of her family, she corresponded with some of her family, partly because of her interest in genealogy, partly because of her need to “straighten up” things. There is for instance preserved a long, bitter, but humorous and very well-written letter, from Sophie to her sister, Margaret.
Today, Sophie is regarded as one of Denmark’s and Scandinavia’s first female researchers and writers. She died in 1643 and was thus 87 or 84 years old, depending on, when you put her year of birth. It was a very old age for that time. As was mentioned above, her beautiful house in Elsinore is still there.
During their lifetime, Tycho expressed his great admiration for Sophie’s abilities and will-power, and for her passion and love. All these character traits strongly resembled his own. She was always an equally great admirer of him.
The inspiration between Sophie and Tycho went both ways, because Sophie was also the “Urania” for Tycho himself: She was his astronomy muse. As such, she indirectly had an influence on the history of science. As so many other women in history.
Else Hoyrup, the author, can be reached by email at email@example.com