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the Complete Review
the complete review - history/biographical

On Tycho's Island

John Robert Christianson

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To purchase On Tycho's Island

Title: On Tycho's Island
Author: John Robert Christianson
Genre: History
Written: 2000
Length: 381 pages
Availability: On Tycho's Island - US
On Tycho's Island - UK
On Tycho's Island - Canada
  • Tycho Brahe and His Assistants, 1570-1601

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Our Assessment:

B : comprehensive account of a fascinating piece of academic and scientific history

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
J. for the History of Astronomy . 11/2000 Curtis Wilson
London Rev. of Books . 2/11/2000 J.L.Heilbron
Nature . 22/6/2000 Kenneth J. Howell
Physics Today . 8/2001 Mary Lou West
Science . 31/3/2000 Nicholas Jardine
TLS . 18/8/2000 John North

  From the Reviews:
  • "On Tycho's Island brims with intriguing material, including 53 pages of footnotes and references that could have been presented better (unless the only intended audience is other historians)." - Mary Lou West, Physics Today

  • "While at first sight there is nothing new in the general drift of the story, Christianson adds three invaluable elements. His accuracy stems from an intimate knowledge of his materials. He brings Uraniborg to life, in a way that has never been done quite so well before. And he has written what is a sourcebook twice over, for the final third of his text is given over to a biographical directory." - John North, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Danish nobleman and scientist Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) was a remarkable man, now perhaps best known as the astronomer whose observations Kepler relied on in promulgating his laws of planetary motion. Brahe was a leading and influential scientist in his day, and his crowning glory was the establishment of a research facility on the island of Hven. Uraniborg was, in many respects, the forerunner of modern scientific facilities with their emphasis on the possibility of collaborative and mutually beneficial work. It flourished only briefly, but John Robert Christianson's account does a very good job of describing it and explaining both its success and ultimate failure.
       On Tycho's Island is divided into two parts. The first is a history of Brahe's life, focussing on his culminating effort in creating his dream on the island of Hven. The second part is a Biographical Directory, providing nearly a hundred brief biographies of those involved with Brahe's project and in his life.
       Brahe is the towering central figure in the first part of Christianson's book, but the book is not a straightforward biography. In fact, it is Brahe's scientific centre that is the main focus.
       Christianson does a good job of explaining the social and scientific conditions of the times. Brahe was born into an influential aristocratic family, but he was still almost completely dependent on the king. This worked to his favour under the rule of King Frederick II who was well-disposed to Brahe and his ambitions, but it proved disastrous under Christian IV, ultimately dooming the marvelous enterprise Brahe had worked so hard to develop.
       Patronage was the name of the game -- "sixteenth-century practices of patronage lie at the the heart of this book" --, both that of the king and that of Brahe himself. Indeed, life and work at Uraniborg were built up on a complex system of patronage. One of Brahe's great talents was in assembling good and great minds and putting them to best use (with a few unfortunate exceptions). It was a research center of the highest order, far ahead of most any university of the time. The focus was on science (and specifically astronomy) but perhaps the most important aspect of it was the meeting of minds that took place there, and the constant exchange of ideas. It is commonplace now, but in the 16th century it was revolutionary.
       Brahe's own interesting and tumultuous life is also described in fair detail. An imposing figure with his prosthetic nose (he lost his in a duel), he was not uncontroversial. He took a woman who was not of his social class (creating great difficulties for him, her, and their children), and he made a number of enemies as well. Ultimately he fell out of favour with the king and left Hven and Denmark, too old then to start anew. Christianson presents the man and his wild life well. Among the more interesting sections is his analysis of Brahe's legacy and how it too has been twisted.
       Historian Christianson does his best to describe the times and the conditions (social, political, and material). He tries to package it neatly, tidying up perhaps a bit too much in the process. Enamored of terms such as familia (encompassing not only Brahe's family, but all who lived under his patronage) and calumnia, Christianson likes to categorize and compartmentalize. The account is also focussed on the historical -- what actually happened -- rather than the scientific developments themselves. These are explained in some detail, but more might have been welcome.
       There are also claims that seem simply bizarre: "Danes ate immense quantities of food in this era", for example. What does this mean ? Similarly: "Beer was the common drink, and normal consumption was four to eight quarts a day." Ye merry Denmark indeed -- but we find it hard to credit that "normal" consumption (by whom ?) of any beverage, much less beer, could approach two gallons a day. Perhaps there are figures that might lend some support to these claims, but these are among the statements that Christianson does not footnote or explain.

       The second section offers brief biographies of the major players (and many of the incidental ones) on the scene. It is an impressive array of characters, and Christianson sprinkles interesting titbits throughout. The many scientists who worked at Hven are obviously of interest, but Christianson includes many others too. So, for example, Live Larsdatter: "a wise woman who was said to have served Tycho Brahe on Hven or in Copenhagen, but the evidence is very thin." Thin it may be, but apparently still worthy of inclusion. "Live Larsdatter was said to have been 123 years of age when she died in 1698. Andersson's imaginative account of her work on Hven is not supported by the sources."
       Christianson is nothing if not thorough. Even Per Gek, a jester who spent two months on Hven, gets an entry, if only so Christianson can point out that "the frequent references by Koestler, Banville, and other twentieth-century authors to Tycho's dwarf, as though he were a permanent resident of the island, are without foundation in the extant sources."

       The book is also well-illustrated, with pictures of most every thing and one that one might want to see -- including the neat instruments of the day, as well as the Tychonic system (splitting the difference between the Ptolemaic and Copernican versions). One complaint: one figure (nr. 18) depicts Morsing's expedition, which led him to "Kaliningrad" and "Gdansk". In the text the names then in use (pre-Kantian Königsberg, and Danzig) are given parenthetically; certainly that is the least that should also be done on the map.

       On Tycho's Island tells a fascinating story, and it tells it quite well. Almost exhaustingly comprehensive, it is nevertheless a fairly readable and only occasionally frustrating work. Certainly it is indispensable for anyone with an interest in Brahe or the science of that time.

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On Tycho's Island: Reviews: Tycho Brahe: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       John Robert Christianson is Professor of History at Luther College.

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