Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601)

When in university I enrolled in a course outside of the engineering curriculum which interested me. It was called the Philosophy of Science and turned out to be wonderful, the points touched remaining with me still today while other subjects fade into the obscure recesses of my mind. I can for example only vaguely recollect that Euler‘s equations had something to do with moving fluids although these formulas were at the forefront of many classes. I really don’t mind since the fluids in question are not moving from a glass into a stomach so they are not particularly interesting anyway. But the philosophy of science was. It regarded the development of scientific theory, the history of science and the distinction between religion and the sciences. All three of these topics provided insight as to how we reached the present point and how we as people tackle the need to know and understand, which as far as I know differentiates us from the other life forms with which we share a planet.

One of the many reasons why this subject was so appealing was that the people behind scientific achievements of yore were an extremely colorful bunch. One of my favorites was Tycho Brahe whom is sort of up my Icelandic-angle alley since he was Danish and we regard the Danish as our cousins, if you count out the few instances when we get upset with them and refer to them in an altogether different way.

Tycho Brahe was an astronomer whose breakthroughs do not equal those of Kepler, Copernicus or Galileo but he was still given a very thorough mention in the class I referred to above. Not only did his observations pave the way for the quantum leaps of others, but he was such an interesting character that anyone giving a lecture on historical scientists would be nuts to leave him out.

To start with, Tycho was born in a castle, the only son of very high ranking Danish aristocrats. My take on his parents is that they were most likely binge or heavy drinkers since at some point before Tycho was born they promised the husband’s brother that they would provide him with a son, seeing that he had no children. Now if that is not a drunken promise then I don’t know what is. The Brahe couple then set about forgetting the promise and began to raise a family that was not up for grabs, giving birth to two daughters and Tycho. The uncle however had no such memory lapse. While visiting he simply took the boy as no one seemed likely to offer him up as a present. Tycho thus relocated from one castle to the next, moving in with his uncle to be raised as his son. Seeing that noblemen pride themselves in being true to their words, Tycho’s parents simply blasted their stupidity and did not attempt to get him back or start any sort of feud over the boy. Tycho Brahe was two at the time. I don't know if this is a coincidence or what but at two toddlers are potty trained - I suspect the uncle strategically scheduled his move to avoid diaper duty.

The scheming uncle was just as well off as the original parents and provided Tycho with an excellent education although his plan for him to study law did not work out. Tycho became enamored with astronomy and set about observing the planets and stars, building huge instruments to do so as accurately as possible as the telescope had not been invented. One of his assistants later in life was Kepler who, following Tycho’s death, used his mentor’s multitude of calculations and measurements to set forth the laws of planetary motion. Very, very impressive stuff.

As was Thyco’s nose, lost in a midnight duel over mathematics while at university and replaced with what was said to have been a gold prosthetic. (Lesson to be learned: a duel in the dark is never a good idea). When Tycho Brahe’s grave was opened much later (in the 1900s) it turned out the fake nose was made of copper which is a lot less glamorous, but probably more comfortable as it would have been a lot lighter than a gold nose. Tycho Brahe was one of the richest men in Denmark during his heyday having inherited both his father and his father/uncle so he could well have afforded a gold nose, meaning that there has to be a reason for him sticking a non-precious replica mid-face.

Tychos Brahe achieved fame all over Europe when he wrote a paper about the birth of a new star which challenged the existing belief that the celestial skies were divine and unchangeable. He became extremely sought after but understandably the Danish king wanted to keep him at home. To tempt Tycho into staying he was literally offered a king’s ransom – a private island (Hven) plus estates amounting at the time to 5% of the Danish GPN – noted as being the world record in the bribe category. It was on Hven that Tycho Brahe built the first research center to be erected in Europe which I cannot do justice here but to give you an idea it was equipped with 16 furnaces for chemical and medical experiments. He also built an observatory on the island. Oh yes, and a castle.

In addition to the interesting nose, Tycho Brahe lived his life unconventionally. He chose to select a mate outside the aristocracy for one. He was not allowed to marry the love of his life as she was a mere commoner and laws at the time prohibited such outrageous couplings. He did not give this much heed and the two lived as husband and wife until his death, amassing eight children and giving none away to relatives. Maybe, just maybe, it was her commoner practicality that resulted in the choice of copper for the nose.

Tycho kept a clairvoyant dwarf as a court jester and a tame elk that died prematurely after falling down stairs in a drunken stupor. He also had a funny moustache. He died from self medicating with liquid mercury – which seems appropriately bizarre enough to complement such a colorful life.

Present day scientists and astronomers feel lacking somehow in comparison. Maybe Stephen Hawking should be provided a clairvoyant court jester to keep things interesting. I for one would follow up on his science with more enthusiasm if this were the case.

Yrsa - Wednesday


  1. Hi Yrsa,
    I am from the Nordic/british/irish/euro mystery group at You have spoken to us before. A few of our wonderful readers have read your latest book. As soon as I get a hold of it, I will read it in a day. So I will wait a little and treat it as a christmas present. Anyways, we love your books and your wonderful articles here that show us your true colorful, comical nature.
    I love this article. I always find science fascinating and I love when humor and life experiences are added to the actual facts.
    How is your volcano? Still spewing? I will have to research the latest.
    (I have adored and admired and laughed with Thora from day one and page one!!)

  2. Yrsa, would you consider being a high school science teacher? How about writing some text books? Imagine the students who would pursue the sciences just to hear more stories about scientists with metal noses and parents who might have made an outrageous promise when they were drunk. They'd pay attention while you talked about planetary motion in case you have more to say about being drunk.

    As to Stephen Hawking, I fell for the story that A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME is a book that enables the average person to understand the cosmos and particle physics. I learned within a few pages that I am not average; I didn't understand a word. I put people who claim to have learned from, and enjoyed, Hawking's book into the same category as those who say they read and enjoyed FINNEGAN'S WAKE.


  3. My wife and I, Yrsa, loved your post - as we always do. And we've both mentioned it on Facebook, because we want others to have the same pleasure.

    Beth, thank you for the comment about FINNEGAN'S WAKE. Boy, did that resonate with me!
    How many times (sigh) have I tried to get to the end of one of Joyce's books - and failed?
    I have no doubt that Sylvia Beach and Joseph Campbell truly enjoyed FINNEGAN'S WAKE.
    But I have grave suspicions about the veracity of anyone else who claims they did.

  4. I really enjoyed this post! It reminded me of a book I recently found out about by Sam Kean, called The Disappearing Spoon. Here's a link to some info & excerpt. Below is the mercury related bit that jogged my memory. Hope you enjoy!
    ''For a long time, I kept an eye out for element eighty at school and in books, as you might watch for a childhood friend’s name in the newspaper. I’m from the Great Plains and had learned in history class that Lewis and Clark had trekked through South Dakota and the rest of the Louisiana Territory with a microscope, compasses, sextants, three mercury thermometers, and other instruments. What I didn’t know at first is that they also carried with them six hundred mercury laxatives, each four times the size of an aspirin. The laxatives were called Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills, after Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a medical hero for bravely staying in Philadelphia during a yellow fever epidemic in 1793. His pet treatment, for any disease, was a mercury-chloride sludge administered orally. Despite the progress medicine made overall between 1400 and 1800, doctors in that era remained closer to medicine men than medical men. With a sort of sympathetic magic, they figured that beautiful, alluring mercury could cure patients by bringing them to an ugly crisis — poison fighting poison. Dr. Rush made patients ingest the solution until they drooled, and often people’s teeth and hair fell out after weeks or months of continuous treatment. His “cure” no doubt poisoned or outright killed swaths of people whom yellow fever might have spared. Even so, having perfected his treatment in Philadelphia, ten years later he sent Meriwether and William off with some prepackaged samples. As a handy side effect, Dr. Rush’s pills have enabled modern archaeologists to track down campsites used by the explorers. With the weird food and questionable water they encountered in the wild, someone in their party was always queasy, and to this day, mercury deposits dot the soil many places where the gang dug a latrine, perhaps after one of Dr. Rush’s “Thunderclappers” had worked a little too well.''

  5. Oh, I loved this post. Tycho Brahe is one of my heroes -- he made those observations without a telescope. I've often wished I could have been there when his inebriated moose fell down the stairs (no cards or letters, PETA members, please). I'll bet he had a gold nose for formal occasions. I certainly would have.

  6. A copper nose? Happens every day

    A clairvoyant dwarf? A dime a dozen. But a copper nose and a clairvoyant dwarf? Now, that's something.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"