Through the Revolving Door: The Fisher Library Blog

IA Book of the Week: Tycho Brache’s Supernova

Date posted: Mon, Jun. 22, 2020

Every Monday, we feature an Internet Archive Book of the Week, which will highlight an item from the 25,000 or so Fisher items that are freely available on the Internet Archive. This week, Megan Fox looks up toward the sky. 

The Fisher has wonderfully rich collections on the history of science, and some of the stars of these holdings have been digitized and are now on the Internet Archive. One example is Tico Brahae, his astronomicall coniectur, of the new and much admired [star] which appered in the year 1572Tico Brahae, or Tycho Brahe, was a Danish nobleman and astronomer working at the end of the 16th century. He was a “naked-eye astronomer” – working without telescopes – but his observations are notable for their empiricism and accuracy. Many of his assertions are still considered correct, or as correct as was possible considering the time and his lack of equipment. 

This text references one of his major observations: a new star that appeared in the constellation Cassiopeia, now called SN1572, “the 1572 supernova,” or “Tycho’s supernova.” In the image of Cassiopeia accompanying this text, it’s labeled “Stella Nova” or “New Star” in Latin. Brahe was not the only person to observe or write about this supernova – it was clear in the sky, brighter than even some planets, from 1572 to 1574 – but his published work on it contains the most robust and accurate contemporary observations. Brahe published this work on the “strange and wonderfulle Starre” in 1573, and the text the Fisher holds is an English translation

The end of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century was an interesting time [for the accessibility of learning,] and one of the pressure points was the transition from texts being primarily in Latin to making them available in secular languages. The most contentious genre for such translations was liturgical works, but scientific works such as this one were often considered too scholarly for the general public. In the front paratext to this edition, the translator offers a justification for the translation: 

This same Starre it selfe before did shroud
Within the Latine, hid as in a Cloud
But now it is unvayl’d, and heere in sight
It shineth forth again, as cleere and bright
As when it first appeared in the Skie
And was the object of each wandering Eye.

In other words, the translator argues that in having the original text in Latin, Brahe’s ideas and work in making the supernova more understandable are obscured. Like brushing away a cloud so that one can see the night sky uninterrupted, translating this work into English makes it more accessible to a much wider audience. In this way, the translator cleverly uses the content of the text he is translating as a metaphor for his work converting Brahe into English, using it as a means for defending such a translation in a time when it may not have been accepted. 

In order to contextualize his observations and conclusions about SN1572, Brahe lays a groundwork in the first part of the book on the “whole Science of Astronomy,” including the revolutions of the sun and moon as well as the locations, among other information, of over 800 other stars. Brahe then explains how this supernova is unlike other celestial beings: it is new, unlike the typically fixed stars he had been observing for years, and it lacks a tail or other features that would identify it as a comet. He further refutes some claims that this supernova is as close to the earth as the moon, showing his mathematics for determining the supernova’s distance in respect to the equator, and last offers a thorough examination of other publications about the supernova, namely how far some of them are from the "touchstone of truth."

This is an impressive scientific publication, made more accessible by its translation into English. As technologies change, we have more and more opportunities to share texts such as Brahe’s, which make sure attempts to keep to the “touchstone of truth” and share the information gathered within. The Internet Archive, as we have been discussing in this series, is a testament to such an endeavour. 

Megan E. Fox, Graduate Student Assistant