Tycho & the Mayans

The best of the best of pre-telescopic or pre-instrument star charters: Tycho Brahe, the epic personality, and the Mayans, those clever Mesoamerican engineers.

My bicycle, lashed to the still-useful horse hitch outside Tycho’s church on the isle of Hven (like “Vain”).  It rises from the narrow sea channel between Denmark and Sweden, 50 meter chalk and sand cliffs (called “backafall“) rising to a level plateau.  On the southeast cliffs, an enterprising local has imported alpaca llamas to graze the cliff faces.  He’s planning on doing guided llama rides someday, too, although it only takes about 90 minutes to bike around the entire perimeter, so he’ll probably just stick with wool.

The beneficent, munificent, and scientifically curious King Frederick II (1534 – 1588) offered the island to Tycho in 1575.  Frederick had incidentally been saved from drowning (probably while drunk, as he was a famous soaker) by Tycho’s uncle Jørgen (who died of pnemonia later, as a result).  But Tycho had also been elevated by his accomplishments with fashioning new instruments, publishing De Stella Nova, and catching the eye of some wealthy landed gentry in Germany/Pomerania who shared an interest in astronomy.  The competition for great science pushed Frederick to make an offer Tycho couldn’t refuse.

He couldn’t, and didn’t, and especially appreciated that the island afforded him the luxury of avoiding the social etiquettes and responsibilities of courtly existence: all distractions – in his mind – from doing good work: staring at the night sky and writing everything down.

His sour relationship with the locals has become a persistent bitter history.  Although the requirements of the peasants – content in their half-timbered villages and golden fields – to serve their noble lord with two days every week of manual labor was not unusual for the rest of Denmark at the time, it was epochal change as far as they were concerned.  The island of about 50 families and some 300 people hadn’t had a lord for over 300 years.

Tycho, the hyper-systematic and obsessive control freak, with his census and surveys and measurments, built his utopian Uraniborg smack dab in the middle of the best arable land and disrupted their universe.  Complaints to the crown are consistent throughout his 20+ year presence, and when he finally did lose the island, the locals tore all his buildings down by hand.  Fortunately, a great museum now exists, and inside the grounds is the island’s elementary and middle school.

It is his meticulous attention to detail that makes Tycho’s mark in history.  He is also often remembered for his flaboyant character, his golden nose (he usually wore one of copper or bronze, though), his unusual death*, and the rich and lordly lifestyle he enjoyed.  True enough, silks and spices and all manner of  expensive items were shipped to Hven, and many stories of his ostentatious feasts remain, with detailed herbs and plants painted on the ceiling tiles (as above, so below).

But with his wealth and patronage, he could afford to construct the finest measuring instruments in the world.  And for Tycho, bigger was better.  His sextant took four people to move, his quadrans maximus was twenty feet high, his celestial globe of wood may have been even grander, though it was abandoned when his father fell ill.  Not only this, but he recruited and became patron to a variety of mathematicians, alchemists, engineers, blacksmiths and more who rotated in and out of his properties.  He turned Hven into the first research institute in the western scientific tradition.

The precision and consistency of his records are what enabled Johannes Kepler to distill his three laws of planetary motion: a crucial starting point for Isaac Newton to utilize new mathematic methods (calculus) in an attempt to prove his theory of gravity.

About four years ago I was in Tulum, ancient Maya territory.  The Maya are 4th dimensional thinkers, or we can say they have a quadripartite cosmic philosophy.  A classic example of this thinking:

“Your plane takes two hours to fly from your home to here.  It takes me two hours to drive to here.  In two hours, our cousin can walk from his home to here.  We all live the same distance from here.”

Time is the undifferentiated past, present and future.  And it is cyclical.  They could, “remember the future to anticipate the past.”  Observation of astral motion became witnessing a narrative.  They invented a base-20 mathematics to accommodate for large array numbers (for instance, representing numbers in the hundreds of trillions with three symbols) about 1,100 years before European mathematicians.

the Maya calculated the length of the solar year to be 365.242 days; modern astronomers calculate the solar year to be 365.242198 days. This is only a difference of 0.000198 days per year. The Dresden Codex tracks the moon over a period of 405 lunar months or 11,960 days. These calculations produce an accurate period of 29.5302 days for a lunar month. Modern calculations yield a period for a lunar month equal to 29.53059 days. This a minute difference of 0.00039 days. Their calculations of the synodical period of Venus were calculated as 583.92027 days, compared to 583.93 days by modern calculations. Their uncanny capabilities also included the synodical period of Mars, which was calculated by the Maya to be 780 days compared to modern calculations of 779.94 days.

O’Kon, James A. The Lost Secrets of Maya Technology.

(Was the end of the Mayan calendar meant to indicate apocalypse?  Of course not.  It was merely the end of one of the recurring cycles.  But astrology always sells better than astronomy.  Astrology is what kept the Mayans and Tycho in business, of course.)

I could on and on about Tycho and the Mayans, particularly the similarity in their concept of “levels” or “crystal spheres,” but there are better sources out there.  Not X-Files out there, either, but right here, seated in human ingenuity.  Tycho may have had a research institute unique for its time, but the quadripartite Mayans had an entire hierarchy of society dedicated to astral observation.  They both designed buildings with features expressly for celestial survey.

And they both loved astrology.  As above, so below.

* = the fun part first.  My Austrian high school calculus teacher – brilliant and unique and deserving of his own dedicated attention – told us that Tycho’s death started with self experimentation.  He claimed that Tycho, well-known to be a strong Melanchthonion adherent and therefore believer in God’s ultimate harmonies, thought that consumption and excretion would be an interesting area of study.

That is to say, if we consume only those things that deliver the proper nutritional value, we will not need to defecate or urinate.  So, using himself as a test case, Tycho began refusing to use the facilities.  Extended discipline resulted in him being unable to do so altogether, and he died when his bladder burst during a nobleman’s dinner where it was inappropriate to excuse himself.

Conspiracy theorists (probably astrologists, too, in fact) think Tycho was poisoned, perhaps even by Kepler himself.  An exhumation of his body in Prague in the early 20th century revealed levels of arsenic and mercury, but a subsequent exhumation in 2010 debunked this theory: the levels were not fatal nor unusual.

On October 13, 1601 Tycho attended dinner at the palace of Peter Vok Ursinus Rozmberk, where it is true that it was discourteous to rise from your seat if your host has not.

Holding his urine longer than was his habit, Brahe remained seated. Although he drank a little overgenerously and experienced pressure on his bladder, he felt less concern for the state of his health than for etiquette. By the time he returned home, he could not urinate any more. [Kepler here noted down the positions of the Moon, Saturn, and Mars on the night of the banquet.]

Finally, [after five days of rest] with the most excruciating pain, he barely passed some urine. But, yet, it was blocked. Uninterrupted insomnia followed; intestinal fever; and little by little, delirium. His poor condition was made worse by his way of eating, from which he could not be deterred. On 24 October, when his delirium had subsided for a few hours, amid the prayers, tears, and efforts of his family to console him, his strength failed and he passed away very peacefully. At this time, then, his series of heavenly observations was interrupted, and the observations of thirty-eight years came to an end. During his last night, through the delirium in which everything was very pleasant, like a composer creating a song, Brahe repeated these words over and over: “Let me not seem to have lived in vain.”

Ferguson, Kitty (2013-01-31). Tycho and Kepler: The Unlikely Partnership that Forever Changed our Understanding of the Heavens


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