The ‘Lifestyles of the rich and the famous’ are usually splashed across the fronts of magazines and tabloids and it’s pretty common today know more than necessary about many people in the public eye. However, back in the 16th century the same media format had not quite been established. Despite this, one such infamous Danish astronomer became well-known not just for his important academic contributions to the world of astronomy but he also became the talk of Europe for many other reasons…
Tycho Brahe (or Tyge Ottesen Brahe) was born in Knutstorp Castle, Scania in Denmark in 1546, which is now part of Sweden. He was born into nobility and many of his ancestors had served on the King’s advice board or were important public figures in Denmark. Tycho, as the eldest son did not have the most conventional upbringing. Instead of being raised by his biological parents, he was brought up by his uncle and aunt. As they were childless, Jorgan Brahe and Inger Oxe were promised a son by Tycho’s father. However, after Tycho’s birth, his parents had failed to stick to their promise. Jorgan then took Tycho as a toddler without his parents noticing and raised him as a son. Tycho’s parents already had another son at this stage and another child on the way so they allowed this to happen as Tycho was then entitled to Jorgan’s large inheritance.
Tycho was well educated studying Latin from a young age. This was to help him to follow law as a career path as encouraged by his uncle. However, when studying at 13 years of age at the University of Copenhagen a total solar eclipse occurred and sparked his interest in astronomy. The ability to predict events such as eclipses caused Tycho to further his studies focusing on astronomy. Taking up a position in Germany, Tycho studied astronomy and languages by day and the sky by night. It was from these studies of the night sky that Tycho discovered many discrepancies in star charts that had been compiled by others. He suggested that a more detailed observation of the night sky from a single location and over a significant period of time was needed. This is what Tycho was to contribute to astronomy.
Over the Christmas period of 1566, Tycho happened to get involved in a duel with a fellow student apparently over who was the best mathematician, which resulted in him losing part of his nose. The duel which also apparently happened in the dark and under the influence meant that for the rest of his life Tycho wore a fake nose made of silver and gold. He made sure that his nose stayed in place by applying a paste regularly. It is also likely that Tycho had perhaps a couple of noses a lighter copper one for everyday and the gold one for special occasions.
Tycho had constructed apparatus (funded by his inheritance after his uncle’s death) that allowed him to study the night sky with great precision. In 1572, on returning to Denmark, Tycho fell in love with a commoner but never formally married her although they lived together until his death in 1601. They went on to have 8 children, none of which were legitimate in status or able to inherit their father’s privileges and all remained commoners like their mother. In the same year Tycho discovered a bright star in the constellation of Cassiopeia. From his observations, he was able to determine that this object was beyond the Moon and the planets in the sky and he coined the term ‘nova’ meaning new star.
Tycho then toured Europe, as a famous astronomer but was invited back to Denmark by the King on the premise that Tycho could have the Island of Ven (now Hven) and a lot of money to build a Castle which he called Uraniborg (a note to Urania the Muse of Astronomy). This project was very expensive said to have cost 1% of Denmark’s entire budget. Not only did it have an observatory, there was also an underground laboratory as Tycho also became interested in alchemy and medicine after losing his nose and he experimented often exploring the healing properties of metals. The residents of the island became Tycho’s subjects were often mistreated and unable to leave without permission of the king himself.
Tycho did on the other hand make an effort to entertain the nobility of Europe inviting them to drink and feast with him. He had a tame elk which he was going to lend to a friend when unfortunately it died during a social gathering after drinking too much beer and falling down the stairs! Another of his party tricks was to silence his guests while Jepp his dwarf jester who often remained under the table during dinners used his sixth sense. After the death of the King of Denmark, the new King cut Tycho’s income significantly causing him throw his toys out of the pram, pack up and move to Prague, where he continued his works funded by a different King. When in Prague, in 1600 he hired mathematician Johannes Kepler to help calculate the planets orbits. Kepler went onto to use Tycho’s accurate data to help him discover the planetary laws of motion.
Tycho died in 1601 in Prague. Eleven days prior to this, Tycho had taken ill after a banquet, at which he had fought the need to visit the bathroom, believing it to be bad manners to leave the dinner table thus putting strain on his bladder. Kepler’s account supports the theory that Tycho died from a urinary infection. However, when Tycho’s body was exhumed in 1901, 300 years after his death; traces of mercury were found in his moustache hair. There have been numerous suggestions for this, an accidental overdose by Tycho himself when treating a kidney ailment, or perhaps a poison attack by Kepler to get his hands on data, or perhaps he was poisoned as a result of a bitter family feud with his cousin.
Although the mystery surrounding Tycho’s death remains, his death as well as his life was a dramatic one. From being kidnapped as a baby, losing his nose as a student and throwing wild parties as an adult. Tycho will not be forgotten easily, not only for his colourful existence but also for being one of the last major players in astronomy before the invention of the telescope.
(Article by Martina Redpath, Education Support Officer)