Tycho Brahe’s Cognitive Kingdom

Deep (Work) History

Recently, I’ve been reading through the first volume of Simon and Schusters’ magisterial 1954 four-volume essay collection, The World of Mathematics (edited by James Newman). In a chapter on Napier’s discovery of logarithms, written by Herbert Turnbull, I came across a neat story about the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe that I hadn’t hear before.

I thought I would share it.

In the sixteenth century, Brahe’s reputation and service had earned him the respect of the Danish King Frederick II. Wanting to reward Brache, Frederick offered Brache his choice of castles to rule.

Brahe, however, had no interest in the administrative responsibilities that came along with such holdings, writing: ” I am displeased with society here, customary forms and the whole rubbish.” He wanted instead to dedicate his life to science.

So Frederick made a better offer: he would give Brahe the island of Hven, located in the narrow straight between modern-day Copenhagen and Helsingborg, as well as the funding to build on it a grand observatory, which Brahe came to call Uraniborg — the Castle of Heavens.

As Turnbull reports: “Brahe…reigned in great pomp over his sea-girt domain,” making it into a palace of science where he could retreat and work deeply on his astronomical musings.

I don’t have any major conclusions to draw from this story other than the fact that it’s a nice piece of deep work lore — the type of contemplative nostalgia that warms the heart on a cold distracted winter afternoon.

(Also, if you’re looking to buy me a Christmas present, you could do worse than to follow King Frederick’s lead. Though, if I’m being honest, I might prefer my island somewhere a little warmer…)

Blog – Cal Newport

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