Tycho the Psycho? Meet One of History’s Maddest Scientific Minds Ever!
Tycho Brahe, the 16th century Danish astronomer, alchemist, astrologist, and scientist (1546-1601) was a force to be reckoned with – the true epitome of the brilliant, mad scientist. In the backdrop of his innumerable contributions to science and astronomy, particularly the lunar theory, Tycho lived a bizarre life. Brought up by an uncle who kidnapped him, Tycho was an alcoholic who never shied away from an argument, losing his nose in a duel as a young man! Everything about this man seems larger than life, who fittingly emerged from the bubbling cauldron of the Renaissance in Western Europe.
His death too remains one of history’s great mysteries, with his body being exhumed twice. Tycho and his family had been attending a banquet in Prague in 1601. Sitting at a massive table, he ate and drank heartily, but could not leave the table as it was considered impolite to leave before the meal was over. He passed an untimely death due to either a bladder or kidney bursting, with an excess of urea in his blood, suffering for eleven days before succumbing to his fate.
Painting of Tycho Brahe by Eduard Ender (Public Domain)
Tycho Brahe: Profile of a Genius with a Sensational Life
Until a decade ago, there were persistent claims that he had been poisoned by mercury, due to the presence of the toxin in his mustache hairs. It was only when his body was exhumed in 2010 that this popular theory was dismissed. It is said that Brahe dictated his own epitaph as “a man who lived like a sage and died like a fool”. Recent investigative work by archaeologists found that Tycho perhaps died from a fatal combination of obesity, diabetes, and alcoholism – something still fairly common in today.
What pulled Brahe towards astronomy was a solar eclipse in 1560, which was barely visible in Copenhagen, where he was studying at the time. The fact that said solar eclipse had been predicted accurately, long before it actually happened, fascinated Tycho to no end, and he launched a quest to make science systematic and accurate. The rest of his life would be spent gathering and assembling one of the largest bodies of astronomical data in history. He was one of the last “naked eye” astronomers in history, working without telescopes for his observations.
While still a student at the University of Rostock, the famous nose duel would occur. Tycho got into a nerdy face off with fellow student Manderup Parsberg, allegedly over mathematics. Brahe would lose the duel, and since he was born 400 years before cosmetic surgery, he had to figure out a way to preserve his vanity. The solution was a brass nosepiece, which was speculated to be gold and silver for a long time. With a small tube of paste in his pocket at all times, he made sure that he was never caught with his nose down!
His personal life was ridiculously complex – not only was he kidnapped by his uncle at the tender age of 2, his parents were seemingly okay with it. Tycho inherited a vast amount of wealth, which at the time of his holding was a whopping 1% of all Danish wealth. His marital life was complicated by the fact that he, a nobleman, began living with someone from outside the aristocracy. In Danish law, after a nobleman lives with a woman for three years, with the keys of the household hanging on the belt of the woman, they are considered married.
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Tycho Brahe drew the construction of his equatorial armillary instrument with moveable equator used for measuring right ascensions and declinations of celestial objects. (Public Domain)
The Origins of the Murder Story – Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Kepler’s Greed?
There is a curious link between the alleged tale of Brahe’s murder, his infidelity to his wife, and Shakespeare’s seminal work, Hamlet (1599-1601). Hamlet is a tale of revenge, love, and drama – Prince Hamlet seeks revenge against his uncle Claudius, who has murdered Hamlet’s father. The reasons are obvious - to take the throne and marry Hamlet’s mother.
For ages it was believed that the mercurial Brahe was murdered, and there were two reasonably convincing theories to believe this tale. Brahe had been the personal astrologer of King Frederik II, but during his visits to the palace, he had an illicit relationship with the queen. When Frederik’s son, 19-year-old King Christian IV took over the throne, he was filled with vengeance. The contemporary rumors of this allegedly inspired Hamlet.
When Christian took over the throne, Brahe fled the country, but perhaps didn’t run away far enough. According to Danish historian, Peter Andersen, who studied the diary of Tycho’s cousin, Count Eric, the murder was ordered by Hans, the late King Frederik’s other son. Hans, acting on behalf of his brother the king, allegedly had Tycho poisoned by mercury.
The second theory was much more rooted in socio-cultural jealousies and legal greys. Tycho’s children were not considered legitimate heirs to his possessions, as he had married outside the aristocracy. To Brahe, his prized possession was really his astronomical data, which included a thousand new stars that he had painstakingly catalogued. Not even the great Johannes Kepler, his prized pupil, had access to this data.
When Tycho died and confusion ensued over various legacies, Kepler would take advantage of the ensuing uncertainty to steal the data. Kepler admitted it, saying in his own words, "I confess that when Tycho died, I quickly took advantage of the absence, or lack of circumspection, of the heirs, by taking the observations under my care, or perhaps usurping them."
To his credit, Kepler used this data to take astronomy further forward than anyone before him, even inspiring great minds like Carl Sagan. Although there is no direct evidence linking Kepler to Brahe’s death, he was certainly the prime suspect and the biggest beneficiary.
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Tycho’s Legacy: Lots of Quirks, Lots of Scientific Genius
Was Tycho a victim of murder after living a turbulent life? The answer is no. A group of researchers who worked on exhuming his body in 2010 had the following to note. "In fact, chemical analyses of the bones indicate that Tycho Brahe was not exposed to an abnormally high mercury load in the last five to ten years of his life," Kaare Lund Rasmussen, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Southern Denmark, said. She was referring to the level of mercury concentration in his beard and blood, meaning the substance was unlikely to have killed him.
And there were more quirks to Tycho’s flamboyant life. He had a best friend named Jeppe, who was a dwarf and was allegedly a psychic. He would sit at his feet during meals, chatter away incessantly, and would stop when Tycho handed him a morsel. Tycho also had a pet elk, who he was bashfully proud of – the elk met its untimely demise by drinking beer, stumbling off, and dying in an accident! Tycho also had an observatory on the island Hven, sanctioned from the King of Denmark, building it as a fortress, with trap doors, a dungeon, and a torture chamber.
For all of the color in Tycho’s personal life, it was what he left behind for science that really stands out. Physics, astronomy, alchemy, and medicine were impacted in varying degrees, particularly the field of astronomy. This work would be carried on by his successor, Johannes Kepler, who built on the voluminous amounts of data Tycho accumulated during his life. His model of the universe, the Tychonic system, saw the moon orbiting the earth, and all the planets revolving around the sun, an important progression in scientific thought and reason.
By Sahir Pandey
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