cover image On Tycho's Island

On Tycho's Island

John Robert Christianson, J. R. Christianson. Cambridge University Press, $65 (464pp) ISBN 978-0-521-65081-6

Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) became his era's ""patron of science par excellence"": he used his smarts, aristocratic status and access to Denmark's king, Frederick II, to turn the island of Hven into Uraniborg, a community built for the advancement of arts and sciences, staffed with scholars invited from all over Europe. Christianson, a historian at Iowa's Luther College, explains how Brahe built Uraniborg with labor from Hven's farm village of Tuna; what exalted friendships Brahe established, and what his Latin verse says about that extended familia; how Brahe's complex household, observatory, printing press, mapmaking projects and chemistry labs operated; and how the Uraniborg group disseminated its methods, ideas and students across northern Europe. Because Brahe's wife was a commoner, his sons could not inherit all his privileges; he spent much of the 1590s on schemes to ensure that Uraniborg would survive him. But his plans crashed under Frederick's absolutist successor, who persecuted Brahe's friends and drove him along with his enterprise to German exile. Christianson devotes 130 pages to a ""Biographical Directory"" of Uraniborg associates, including Brahe's most famous collaborator, solar-system theorist Johannes Kepler. If the brief sketches there seem aimed at fellow historians, the front half of the book will certainly interest a broader audience: Christianson's narrative combines the intrigue of Reformation courts with the excitement of early modern science. It was in this period that experimental methods and European technology found their real launching pads. Without Brahe, Brahe's friends and his citadel of research, such developments would have happened elsewhere and differently--if at all. (Feb.)