Tycho Brahe: The Wildest Astronomer
Strange men are common, but strangely awesome men are not! Tycho Brahe, born Tyge Ottesen Brahe, led a most unusual life. Even from his earliest years, Brahe was simply not made to fit the mold.
If Brahe had the misfortune of being born into poverty, we might have had nothing in the history books about him. Weirdly, it doesn’t actually matter what Brahe was born into, since he was stolen from his parents at the age of two.
It seems silly to think of anyone stealing a child, much less a toddler, but Jørgen Brahe, Tycho’s uncle, took a liking to him. Apparently it was a rather extreme liking, since he seems to have made off with the child, and his parents didn’t put up too much of a fuss about it. As a result, Tycho wound up having a larger impact on the world than anyone, especially his parents, could have expected.
What He Did for Science
While the strange events that made up Brahe’s life could easily take up this entire post, what he did for science is really his most important achievement. There’s no denying that Brahe was an amazing person. He lived life in a way that most others would never dream of (or want to). He was born in Denmark, now Sweden, in 1546 and died in 1601.
55 years is not a lot of time to interpret the cosmos, but Brahe was a bit fanatical about his work, which is how he was able to use his time to become one of the founders of modern astronomy. Most astronomers back then weren’t as worried about accuracy or continuity as Brahe was, and his dedication made all the difference in his work.
Brahe wasn’t just an observer though. He was also a maker. He made many new instruments to help in the observation of the cosmos. While the telescope was not one of them, he did create new ways to determine the position of the stars with greater accuracy.
Another of his major achievements included the discoveries of new stars. First, he discovered a new star in 1572, in the Cassiopeia constellation. At the time, people believed that the stars were fixed in the heavens and that the Earth was the center of the universe. As such, the discovery of a new star wasn’t just interesting; it challenged the foundations of what people believed the Earth was built on. We now know that the supernova he saw was the death of a star, not a new one, but it still served to alter how people viewed the heavens.
Further demonstrating the disturbing idea that the heavens were not unchanging, Brahe also charted the course of a comet. Comets had been seen before, but they were thought to be local objects, passing between the Moon and the Earth, with no impact on the stars. Brahe’s calculations proved otherwise.
While these were both pretty impressive accomplishments on their own, what they led to was even better. Brahe’s notion that the sky is not fixed is thought to have a direct impact on the creation of the heliocentric model of the universe, the idea proposed by Copernicus that the Sun was the center of the universe, not the Earth.
The Nose Incident
The dedication that Brahe had for his work didn’t only make him a good astronomer: It made him some enemies as well. Apparently people got pretty heated about science in the 1500’s, because Brahe wound up squaring off in a duel against Manderup Parsbjerg. He was injured and had to wear a copper nose for the rest of his life, or at least the times when he was out in public.
Apparently, the duel was over math, or, more specifically, a mathematical formula. Since they couldn’t Google the answer, the only reasonable response was a fight to the death — or at least the death of a nose.
Genius or Madness?
There’s a fine line between genius and insanity, and there is ample evidence that Brahe may have flirted with that line more than once. He was unarguably brilliant and dedicated to his work, but he was also downright weird. Part of this was due to his wealth, which allowed him indulgences that would have otherwise been impossible.
For example, he owned a pet elk.
Yes, an elk, the animal with big antlers that looks kind of like a moose, but with a smaller snout. According to the stories, Brahe had a genuine bond with the animal, or at least as much of a bond as one can form with an elk. Maybe they’re like large cats.
The elk followed him around, he kept it in his palace and apparently he sent it out to visit people on his behalf. Can you imagine expecting a person for dinner and getting an elk instead? It sounds rather disconcerting.
Like all pets, Brahe’s elk did eventually die. Not of old age, as most pets hope to. Instead, Brahe sent the elk out to visit a nobleman instead of going himself. The nobleman, in turn, got the elk drunk. Having had too much to drink, the elk fell down the stairs and died. It might not have been a honorable end, but it’s safe to assume the elk had a pretty good life.
Ending as He Began — Strangely
Brahe’s death was just as strange as his life, and is still being investigated! Two possibilities are floating around — either Brahe accidentally poisoned himself by ingesting mercury during the course of his experiments, or he was poisoned. The official report claimed his death was due to bladder complications, which was understandable. For 11 days, Brahe was unable to urinate completely, which just sounds horrible. However, later investigations found traces of mercury on his mustache.
One potential culprit is King Charles, who ascended the throne after the death of his father, King Fredrick. There is some evidence that Brahe, who was favored by Fredrick, was also heavily favored by the Queen, Fredrick’s wife and Charles’ mother. There’s a possibility that King Charles ordered Brahe’s murder because he was sleeping with his mother.
Sound familiar? This theory may be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Brahe really did get around!
The second murder option is scientifically motivated: By the end of his life Brahe had managed to catalogue over one thousand new stars. Considering that a few years earlier no one thought new stars were possible, this was pretty impressive.
Brahe made the choice to marry down, wedding a commoner when he was a nobleman. As such, his children were seen as illegitimate, and not eligible to inherit Brahe’s possessions or research. Since no one had seen his research, his student, Johannes Kepler, took full advantage of it. Once Brahe passed away, Kepler leapt at the chance to grab the data for himself. So, while Kepler had some motive to have Brahe murdered, little actual evidence supports this theory.
It seems that Tycho Brahe’s life, and his death, will remain a mystery. It’s hard to imagine a life more full of mystery, intrigue and passion, so it’s wonderful that he left such a strong mark on the world. If he had been a farmer, we might never have known his name.
Megan Ray Nichols is a science writer with a particular passion for astronomy. She writes for Schooled By Science, a blog dedicated to simplifying scientific topics.