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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 Brahe, Frederick offered Brahe 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…)

16 thoughts on “Tycho Brahe’s Cognitive Kingdom”

  1. Cal,

    I just finished reading your book “Deep Work” during this winter break between semesters. I found it very helpful given my situation (1st year doctoral student with 2 kids). I was already familiar with your blog before reading it, but I thought your book might elaborate more on certain topics and principles than your short blog pieces usually do. Happily, I was right. Your book expounded upon exactly the things I was hoping it would, and for the first time in my graduate studies, I feel prepared with a more fully developed plan for deep work, rather than just brute-forcing my way through the limited time I have.

    Hope 2018 is as productive and meaningful for you as it will be for me.

  2. Hi Cal. Seems like you have made a small typo – It should be Brahe instead of Frederick in the 2nd part of the sentence.

    ” So Frederick made a better offer: he would give Frederick the island of Hven, “

  3. Amazing collection of books. I was able to find it at a used book store about 10 years ago for a few bucks. One of my best finds. Great blog

  4. Hi Cal, seems like there is a typo:

    “Wanting to reward Brache, Frederick offered Brache his choice of castles to rule.”

    I thing his name was Brahe.

    • Hi Johannes, seems like there is a typo in your comment about a typo:

      “I thing his name was Brahe.”

      I think you meant to say ‘think’.

      • Hi Bg, seems like there is a typo in your comment about Johanne’s typo:

        “I think you meant to say ‘think’.”

        I think you meant to say:

        ” I think you meant to say ‘think.’ “

        • Hi K, seems like there is a typo in your comment about Bg’s comment about Johannes’ typo:

          “seems like there is a typo in your comment about Johanne’s typo”

          I think you meant to say:

          “seems like there is a typo in your comment about Johannes’ typo.”

    • The World of Mathematics is a great work of James R. Newman. The work actually covers 4 volumes and the volumes have a treasure trove of history of mathematics. It has an admirable subject and delightfully written. Readers can easily understand its main points and ideas without giving more focus in it.

  5. Can you PLZZZZ write the list of the books you’re reading NOW? I couldn’t exactly decipher from your night stand pic,:), and Yes I have read and re-read your books.
    finally thanks so much for all your hard work.


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