Nothing in the past or present was quite like Uraniborg, the massive scientific project housed in a Renaissance castle built by Tycho Brahe on the island of Hven. It has been called the first "big science" project, the first example of the great scientist surrounded by his students, and the first example of large funds (think "grants") to what were basically post-docs and grad students. While all of these have some similarity to Uraniborg, none come close to the unique qualities of this place. Named after Urania, the Muse of Astronomy, Uraniborg (the "castle of Urania") was used by Tycho to make the most precise observations in astronomy up to that time. His data became the foundation for Kepler's three laws of planetary motion and it was there that he devised the Tychonic System which was a hybrid of the Copernican and Ptolemaic models of the solar system. But the reader will find little actual science in this book. Tycho's life as one of the leading Danish nobles, the way in which he used his money and clout to build Uraniborg, the way he treated the peasants on the island, his relationship to his students (his "famuli") and his wandering life afterwards - that is what this book is about.
Christianson says at the very beginning of the book that he filled the proverbial shoebox with notes about Tycho's students and that led to writing the book. This is obvious throughout. The book is crammed with the names of Tycho's assistants. I wasn't surprised since "Tycho and His Assistants" is the subtitle of the book but it was still a daunting task to try to follow the book at times as Christianson constantly references the students. All of Part II - 128 pages - is composed of brief biographies of Tycho's students. Some of these are interesting (Kepler's is excellent) but many are dry and of limited interest to the general reader. I also wish that Christianson had spent just a little more space getting into the science done at Uraniborg. He does talk about the instruments and there are many helpful illustrations in the book. He also very briefly mentions the Tychonic System. But, given the absolutely critical nature of Tycho's data for the future of astronomy, I wish he would have spent a few more pages spelling out what the data was and why it was so important. Granted, that was not the function of this book, but, given how few good books are out there on Tycho, I was hoping for a bit more detail about his scientific achievements.
However, if the reader can work through the many many names and the limited discussion of the science itself, this book does well what it set out to do. Sections are fascinating, e.g.,how someone can convince a monarch to give him an island and proceed to build an unheard of scientific complex on it when, at the same time, the vast majority of other nobles were using their money and fame for trivial and self-centered pursuits. For the time in which Tycho lived and in the social milieu in which he moved, the very idea of a massive team project specifically using your own island and a huge facility for of all things, science, seems like something from a 16th century version of the twilight zone. The social story here is terrific and when the book works, it works extremely well. So the reader should know what he or she is buying. If you want a social history of one of the most unusual scientific projects in human history, this is the book. In that regard I highly recommend it.