Happy birthday, Tycho Brahe! 464 years ago The Man With The Golden Nose was born, and the world was never the same again. Has there ever been anyone in the history of science who’s life has been as colorful as Tycho Brahe? Did you know his body was exhumed last month for forensic testing to determine once and for all whether or not he was poisoned with mercury? This sparked a lot of interest in his biography, and his name was all over the news for a couple of weeks. Here’s three of the more interesting articles posted last month.
Was Tycho Brahe poisoned? 16th-century astronomer exhumed–again
There is no shortage of lore surrounding Tycho Brahe. For starters, the 16th-century Danish astronomer famously lost part of his nose at age 20 in a duel with another nobleman and thereafter wore a metal prosthesis on his face. Then, take this bizarre snippet from an eponymous 1890 biography of Brahe by J.L.E. Dreyer:
“Two other inmates of Tycho’s house may also be mentioned here. One was a maid of the name of Live (or Liuva) Lauridsdatter, who afterwards lived with Tycho’s sister, Sophia, and later was a sort of quack-doctor at Copenhagen where she also practised astrology, &c. She died unmarried in 1693, when she is said to have reached the ripe age of 124. The other was his fool or jester, a dwarf called Jeppe or Jep, who sat at Tycho’s feet when he was at table, and got a morsel now and then from his hand. He chattered incessantly and, according to [Brahe’s assistant] Longomontanus, was supposed to be gifted with second-sight, and his utterances were therefore listened to with some attention.”
Later in his life, as court astronomer to Emperor Rudolph II in Prague, Brahe collected some of the best observations of his day for the positions of celestial bodies in the sky, which his successor, Johannes Kepler, would later publish as The Rudolphine Tables. To top it off, Brahe died at age 54 after, as the story goes, he stayed at the table too long without relieving himself during a formal dinner, possibly bursting his bladder in the process.
The crazy life and crazier death of Tycho Brahe, history’s strangest astronomer
Brahe inherited a great deal of wealth from his foster father Jørgen, who died in 1565 when saving the King of Denmark from drowning…a rather different royal death than the one Tycho might later have experienced. Brahe is thought to have possessed as much as 1% the entire wealth of Denmark, and five times that much was spent by the Danish government on Brahe’s astronomical research.
He lived in a castle, where he kept a rather unusual group of regular entertainers. He employed a little person called Jepp, who Brahe believed possessed psychic powers. Jepp was his court jester, and spent most dinners under the table. It’s probably best not to speculate on just why Brahe preferred that arrangement. Then there was Brahe’s elk, a tame beast that Brahe kept as a prized pet. The elk met a rather bizarre end, reportedly drinking a lot of beer while visiting a nobleman on Brahe’s behalf, after which it fell down the stairs and died. Yes, that entire sentence was about an elk.
I’ve heard stories that the elk got a state funeral.
Murder! Intrigue! Astronomers?
It’s “Amadeus” meets “Da Vinci Code” meets “Hamlet,” featuring a deadly struggle for the secret of the universe between Tycho, the swashbuckling Danish nobleman with a gold-and-silver prosthetic nose, and the not-yet-famous Johannes Kepler, his frail, jealous German assistant. The story also includes an international hit man, hired after a Danish prince becomes king and suspects Brahe of sleeping with his mother (and maybe being his father!).
For comic relief, there’s a beer-drinking pet elk wandering around Tycho’s castle, as well as a jester named Jepp, a dwarf who sits under Tycho’s table and is believed to be clairvoyant.