Mary Beth Writes

5/24/2023   O is for Observation

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) was a pre-telescope Danish astronomer who looked at the sky more precisely than anyone before him had done. He was obsessively careful about measuring what he saw and he studied the sky every night he could. To accomplish what he wanted he reinvented and fine-tuned the sky-gauging tools of his era – sextant and quadrant.

You may have seen these tools in paintings of old-time sailors. They would hold them up to their face, look at the stars, figure out where they were in the world.

This is what Tycho invented! Oversized tools to super-accurately notate where a heavenly body was in the sky, and how much it had changed since last night.

Tycho was the first of twelve kids born to a noble family near Svalov in what is now Sweden but then was Denmark. (My Swedish ancestors came from Svalov!) His uncle and aunt had no kids, so at age 2 his dad and mom let them take Tycho to raise. I guess this worked because they sent him to the best schools available and he said nice things about them. Weird, though.

When he was 20 he got in a big fight with his third cousin over who was the better mathematician. (!) The two guys decided to have it out with a swordfight fought in the dark (how drunk were they?) and Tycho lost half his nose. He wore a metal prosthesis for the rest of his life. If you go to Denmark you can see it in a museum.

Tycho was expected to go into law and politics as was the family custom for males, but he loved science. He traveled to study with the leading northern European scientists of his time and then returned to Denmark. Danish King Frederik II gave him the small island of Hvan between Copenhagen and Sweden on which to build a castle and observatory.

Tycho was a demanding and tightfisted landlord to local families. He required that they support and build his buildings, which he had personally designed according to the architectural principles of Andreas Palladio (Palladian windows, anyone?) He named his castle Uraniborg and it would become the largest early observatory in Europe. A hundred scientists worked there, including Tycho’s first assistant – his sister Sophia. So if you were of scientific mind and training, he was a cool dude to hang out with. If you were Joe Bloke down the street, not so much. I think we know this kind of guy.

At that time most Europeans believed the earth was the center of the universe and all the stuff in the sky revolved round us. Tycho was among the first to reexamine that belief. He said the center of the known universe was the sun – except then the sun revolved around us. Complicated, to be sure, but Europe was still on the Church bandwagon so his observations and writings were extremely useful to those who would come after him.

There are more interesting and weird things to know about this Danish guy, whom I would suspect, was on several of the most interesting continuums of his day and ours. Such as, he had a pet moose that died when it drank too much booze, poor moose, and fell down stairs.

Watch this fast-paced, five-minute YouTube video about Brahe. Good story.

O is for observation.

Careful observation is for the brave and/or foolhardy. If you need a particular answer to make your life work the way you believe it needs to work – you will not be the best observer. You will hedge your bets and warp what you see in order to get the answer you want.

Careful observation is the archenemy of the Status Quo. Which is why too many people are determined not to actually observe why people become addicted to legal or illegal drugs and why poor families so often stay poor and what is a National Debt and what makes it grow, decrease, or bust the world?

Carefully observing what’s going on can destabilize our lives. I did not like realizing I am “allergic” to gluten. I did not like realizing, when I worked in the jail, that I gave in to macho co-workers because I don’t like conflict. I didn’t like realizing early in my adulthood how easily I become hyper critical when I’m tired or jealous. But observing led to better problem solving.

Curiously, observation is also a way to escape. Have you ever been so overwhelmed you just gave up and listened for whatever you could hear? Count how many different noises are outside you - chirps, trains, yelling kids, wind in the trees, inexplicable pops in the distance, dishwasher in the kitchen. Just sit where you are, or walk where you are walking, and turn off your brain and listen and look.  

Observation can tamp down our monkey brains to let us watch, breathe, and maybe describe the foundation of what comes next.

Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On?” Listen here. 

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