Not in Our Stars, But in Ourselves ... Umberto Tosi

Brahe's lost star tracker
Happy new year! Time to reckon, to reflect and to resolve, or so they say. Not my strong points. My mind roils with riptides. I have to swim criss-cross if I'm to make it ashore. Don't expect any consistency here. Besides, as Emerson pointed out, it's overrated. "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," he wrote, "adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

Now we march into the third decade of the twenty-first century, too many out there goosestepping to the deadly drums of tyrannies past. You can't call this mess millennial anymore. No more excuses. With a precious few notable exceptions, this brave new century has been a big disappointment. Those of us who came of age in the last century expected so much more. 

We see no magic-bullet cures for major diseases, only Big Pharma raking in obscene profits for incremental palliatives with terrifying side effects that announcers list in calm voices over soft music and pastoral scenery on the glow box. Apocalyptic heat-waves and wildfires make huge swaths of Australian and the American West uninhabitable and they say this is only the beginning - while climate crisis countermeasures languish in legislatures corrupted by dark, Petro-fascist money. Our gangster American president actively pushes pollution-causing deregulation and energy-waste. Forget colonies on Mars or affordable housing at home. Airliners pack passengers in like anchovies. No flying cars - and not enough electric ones to mitigate air pollution or the climate crisis yet.

Donahue with Tycho Brahe's unique working replica
Don't blame science or technology. Browse through the data. We have plenty of practical ways to cope with the global problems that currently threaten human survival. Americans in particular, just haven't mustered the strength to breakthrough the corruption that smothers them in their toxic-paralytic political status quo in the thrall of a gangster president and his dark-money-financed, Cult45 fringe following.

But maybe I shouldn't complain. By this time the twentieth century already had its first world war.

Take heart, I tell myself - and verily say, with fingers crossed, unto you, my friends! Momentous changes are afoot. I see the signs. It's always been this way. Things are forever until they are not - and it always starts with the small signs -- the cracks in the foundation walls. This much I've surmised, anyway, as an inveterate, unofficial historian diving for artifacts from which to shape my stories - fiction and nonfiction - and novels-in-progress these post-and-past millennial centuries.

I read this necromancy into an Associated Press news clipping that my inamorata, the artist Eleanor, forwarded to me the other day at the close of the year. The story, from her home state of New Mexico, featured a beautiful, shiny, freshly minted, steel device that can pinpoint the path of stars and planets across the night sky using the naked eye, without the use of a telescope or any modern, astronomical or electronic device. Its purpose is to let users look at the heavens in the way that pre-seventeenth-century astronomers had to do before telescopes came into use.  

The spherical device was designed, forged and installed as a graduate science studies project at St. John's College near Santa Fe by graduates. It is a remake of long-lost originals devised by Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in the late 16th century to chart the location of stars and the orbits of planets. Amazingly, two giants of mathematics and astronomy - Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler - used such a device to take painstakingly precise measurements and make discoveries that changed the world at the start of the seventeenth century, confirmed shortly thereafter by Gallileo, destroying the cozy pre-Copernican, earth-centric universe of harmonic celestial spheres presided over by a clockmaker God and his heavenly host. Hello, modern science and the modern world.

With such a relatively simple, but advanced device for its time, Johannes Kepler to show that Mars revolved in an elliptical - not circular - orbit around the sun. From these measurements, he constructed his famous model of the solar system, based upon tested empirical evidence, not simply belief and hypothesis. This sounded the death knell to the long-held, comfortable earth-centric of the heavenly spheres over which a clock-maker, almighty God presided with His heavenly hosts.

“You can often learn things about how science was done in another age by recreating the artifacts and recreating the instruments,” said William Donahue, lab director emeritus at St. John’s College near Santa Fe, New Mexico.

None of Brahe’s original stargazing devices have survived. Donahue and his grad students at St. John’s commissioned a functioning replica based on Brahe’s drawings and illustrations. They got British craftsman David Harber to replicate one from surgical stainless steel as a cost of more than $100,000, said the professor.

Static replicas of Brahe's armillary sphere are commonly on display in public squares and parks but are not precise enough for real scientific work. The Santa Fe replica can make incremental, angular measurements down to one-sixtieth of a degree, or 1 arc minute.

The Tycho Brahe sphere is more than decorative - and even more than a scientific instrument to me. It is a time-traveled gift from the past - from the alternative universe of my novel, as familiar to me as the screen on which I'm composing this blog. It is one of the astrolabe devices I got to know well during my research for Ophelia Rising.

I turned the larger-than-life, Brahe into a prominent character in my historical novel, Ophelia Rising, which narrates a reimagined afterlife for Shakespeare's fair maid beyond Hamlet's final curtain.

Two new volumes of the novel - sequenced in two parts - are due out this year, starting with book one, this spring. In the second Ophelia book - (spoiler alert!) the astronomer-nobleman crosses paths with a by-then-fugitive Ophelia and her child - the bastard son of Prince Hamlet. Brahe knew Hamlet and Horatio as students when he lectured at the University of Wittenberg (cited in Shakespeare's tragedy).

Tycho Brahe - etching by Jacques de Gheyn II
Brahe (of whom I wrote in these pages a couple of years ago) - by this time is in league with his fellow Danish peers to overthrow Claudius' successor at Elsinore, the Norwegian Prince Fortinbras (whom the Bard portrays as marching into Elsinore at the tragic close of his play.)  By now, the warlike Fortinbras has become a tyrant. As one of the era's richest, most powerful nobles, Brahe would certainly have known a real Prince Hamlet. Brahe was as renown for his feasts, his banquets, and his self-designed, silver prosthetic nose as for his astronomy and mathematics - including discovery and naming of the comet seen widely in Elizabethan northern Europe - mentioned in Shakespeare's plays - including the first act of Hamlet. (Brahe lost his nose in a sword fight, by the way) but seemed to continue undaunted.)

In my novel, Lord Brahe grants Ophelia asylum on the Scandanavian island of Hven, which he owned in real life as a Danish nobleman and where he built his famous planetarium, Uraniborg. There, the obsessive, near tyrannical Brahe and his students made thousands exact observations of stars, planets and other celestial bodies - using such pre-telescopic instruments as the one replicated now in New Mexico. The telescope that Gallileo would turn towards Jupiter, discovering its moons, would have been little more than a toy without Brahe's and Kepler's precision measurements from which to chart and navigate.

Thus proceeds the slow march of inconvenient, inexorable science over centuries that Trump and his ignorant armies are bent on crushing with the same evil intent as the Inquisition that threatened Gallileo with torture unless he recanted what he knew to be the truth.

This is where those of us who write - dimly or brilliantly - come into play. We like to think of ourselves as keeping track of - and if we're adept and/or very lucky, get to shape the narratives by which human beings see themselves. Kepler and Brahe and Gallileo were extremely dangerous to the priests and peerage of their age, not only because of their discoveries - which could have remained scholarly citation - but because they forever changed humanity's story about itself. In our times, the common wisdom is that knowledge of the world, of ourselves and the universe, empowers us for good or ill. But down through the ages, the narrative -- that is, the beliefs of people - were of not valued for practical applications as much as they existed to glorify the tribe, the nation, the empire, and justify the power and privilege of emperors, kings, nobles and popes.

Authoritarians and oligarchs of today hate science and knowledge largely for the same reasons as the old kings -- because what people believe should always reinforce their relative power - whether or not it makes sense or helps humanity. The theory of climate change isn't so much science to them, They have little interest in advancing human knowledge beyond anything they cannot monetize swiftly. It shapes - as has been pointed out - an inconvenient narrative that they see only as a threat to the value their fossil fuel assets. They back politicians who will rail against it - and science itself. It must be suppressed, even if that means rendering our world uninhabitable to our children.

Need another sign? The red super-giant Betelgeuse is dimming suddenly, and perhaps going supernova.  Betelgeuse is 11 masses of our sun and holds forth near the nebula of Orion - a nursery of birthing stars, highly visible during these winter months in the Northern Hemisphere. Nobody has figured out exactly what this sudden dimming means. What would Kepler and Brahe make of this? We have Tycho's instrument just in time. Changes here, however, will likely be what we make of them.

Of course, let's not kid ourselves. The Plague of Trump didn't just happen like a supernova. We made it - the folly of perhaps good people abetting the evil intents of bad, national vices and sins clung-to for decades, even centuries that we naively thought behind us in our new century. They have risen from the fetid swamp bitten us hard on our arses, and must now be smacked down hard, as needs happen from time to time. The Bard knew that.  "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves" - William Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago in Julius Caesar. Still right.

Umberto Tosi is the author of Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine, West. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine. He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children. He resides in Chicago. (He can be contacted at



Jan Needle said…
'Thus proceeds the slow march of inconvenient, inexorable science over centuries that Trump and his ignorant armies are bent on crushing with the same evil intent as the Inquisition that threatened Gallileo with torture unless he recanted what he knew to be the truth.'

Fascinating and thought-provoking as ever. Thanks Umberto
Bill Kirton said…
Evolution? From Tycho Brahe to Trump? Er...
Thanks, Umberto. Inspiring.
Alicia Sammons said…
Thought provoking reflection at the dawn of a new decade, unpinned by the shining stars of our troubled past. Fascinating!
The first part of your post reminded me I had seen various tweets about Betelgeuse a few days ago, so I was interested that you mentioned it. Apparently if it does go supernova the light will be brighter than our moon, and I think even though we are no longer medieval peasants we might still see it as some kind of portent (the terrestrial news today is even more portentous though, unfortunately).
Sandra Horn said…
Much food for thought, Umberto, if not much good cheer. Sometimes things turn on the merest hair, though, and hope, as it was said, springs eternal.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you, Jan, Bill, Alicia, Cecilia and Sandra and a happy new year to all, one a lot brighter than things look at the moment, certainly.
Elizabeth Kay said…
Really interesting. Uzbekistan was a revelation, with advanced astronomical instruments and an amazing observatory.
Enid Richemont said…
A fascinating post, Umberto, and one which my (sadly, late) husband David, would have really appreciated, as he was a keen amateur astronomer. We had a professional telescope in the back room of our London house, which was somewhat frustrating because of cloud and city light pollution.
Happy New Year to you and your inamorata. The night sky from New Mexico must be amazing!
Griselda Heppel said…
Wonderful post, thank you Umberto! What a brilliant idea of those Santa Fe academics to reconstruct Tycho Brahe's astronomical device and what skill to achieve it only using Brahe's drawings and illustrations, without the original to copy. I love all these early scientific instruments - quadrants, astrolabes, armillery spheres... There's a marvellous collection in Oxford's Museum of the History of Science (which also exhibits such useful 16th century scientific aids as crystal balls, amulets, charms etc, all for the furthering of human knowledge - a truly magical place!).

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