Amongst its many treasures, Salisbury Cathedral Library has a number of early books on astronomy. These include some by the Danish astronomer and mathematician Tycho Brahe. Brahe (1564-1601) was a colourful character and very much a man of his time. Sporting a silvered-brass nose held on by paste, (his own had been mutilated in a duel) and owning a celebrated tame elk*, he also contributed considerably to astronomical understanding.
He was the last of the naked-eye astronomers – there were no telescopes in his lifetime. Yet, using large quadrants and sextants, he was able to amass a huge number of accurate observations of the movements of stars and planets over time. This data gave theoretical underpinning for the heretical theory of Copernicus – that the earth and planets revolved around the sun. Much of this data and his reasoning based on it, is shown in his two-volume work “Astronomiae Instauratae Progymnasmata”. The library has the 1610 edition printed in Frankfurt.
In volume 1 Brahe describes a “Stella Nova” - what we today would term a Supernova – in the constellation of Cassiopeia. He was the first observer to realise that this new star was in fact far beyond the planets – in the realm of the “fixed immutable stars”. By observing this new star, he destroyed the age-old notion that the “fixed” stars were unchanging.
The book also shows his observations of the comet of 1577. He discovered not only that comet’s tails always point away from the sun, but also that comets are situated amongst the planets and were thus not an atmospheric phenomenon as had always previously been believed. Yet, in spite of his discoveries, Brahe was troubled by the Copernican system which went against his cherished Aristotelian philosophy as well as the Holy Bible. His disquiet culminated in his alternative model of the universe, the Tychonic model, in which, although the planets revolve around the sun, the sun itself and moon revolve around the earth.
As I skimmed the dense text in these leather-bound tomes, I was sobered to realise that these ancient books with all their aura, and almost smell, of that dark world of the late 16th century, have led on to black holes, dark matter and curved space/time. They were the precursors of modern astronomy with all its wonders. Further pictures of the books can be seen in the accompanying gallery.
*The pet elk suffered a sad demise. During a banquet it was allowed to drink excessive quantities of beer and as a result of this, fell down some stairs and died.
Written by Cathedral Volunteer Ken Smith