August 8 – Cornerstone of Uraniborg Is Laid

Published on August 8, 2013
Astronomy is mostly an “observational science.”

Much of astronomy involves observing (seeing) the Sun and moon, stars and planets, and all the other astronomical bodies. Astronomers observe these things at all the different wavelengths—radio waves to visible light to X-rays and beyond. They do experiments that confirm or reject hypotheses—but many of these experiments have to do with making more observations, often at special times such as during eclipses or transits. Astronomers cannot make experiments by, say, moving stars and galaxies around or injecting them with various chemicals to see what happens!

Way back in the 1500s, astronomy was all about observing celestial bodies without telescopes (let alone spectroscopes and radio telescopes). Telescopes had not yet been invented, so astronomers were stuck with naked-eye observations, just like all the non-astronomers.

What astronomers did better than everybody else was to make really careful observations, measuring just where the specks of light in the night sky were. They began to create instruments to help them keep records of the changing positions of the stars and other celestial bodies, night after night. But Tycho Brahe was frustrated by the instruments others made; they weren't capable of making the kind of exact measurements he needed to make. So Tycho invented improved instruments. He created sighting tubes, sextants, quadrants, and armillary spheres, along with a very accurate aiming device.

Furthermore, Tycho directed the construction of the first recorded building designed specifically for astronomical observation. On this date in 1576, the cornerstone of Tycho's new observatory, called Uraniborg, was laid. The building was located on the island of Hven and was carefully oriented for the best view of the sky. It featured towers and windows and balconies designed to serve as platforms for Tycho's instruments.

Here's what Uraniborg included:
Here we can see the layout
of the grounds around
First floor:
  • Four rooms: one for Tycho and his family;
  • the other three for visiting astronomers
  • Northern tower: kitchens
  • Southern tower: library
Second floor:
  • One large room, for visiting royalty; two smaller rooms
  • Towers: astronomical instruments
Third floor:
  • Loft divided into 8 small rooms for students
  • Roofs of towers: platforms for observation
  • “Widow's walk”: for observation
  • Alchemical laboratory and storage for food, salt, and fuel

After all of the planning, time, and expense that went to building Uraniborg, it soon became clear that there was too much wind high up on the towers to use the instruments. So Tycho planned another observatory, next door; this one he called Stjerneborg. This building had underground chambers where the instruments were placed, well out of the reach of the wind. Shutters could be opened to allow starlight to enter those chambers and reach the instruments.

Also on this date:

Sneak Some Zucchini onto Your Neighbor's Porch Night 

Plan ahead:

Here are my Pinterest pages on August holidayshistorical anniversaries in August, and August birthdays.

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