Back when astronomy was astrology and chemistry was alchemy, scientists were even more eccentric than they are now. Tycho Brahe, the famous 16th-century Danish astronomer, is a case in point. One of his peculiarities included having a drunken moose, as well as a psychic dwarf, in his household. Such an idiosyncratic life could only have ended in an equally peculiar and mysterious way.
To understand what caused his demise, Danish and Czech experts exhumed Tycho’s body last week. Did he die because his bladder burst, as the first written accounts on his death reveal? Or was it poison by mercury — samples from his mustache taken when the body was first exhumed in 1901 revealed high levels — that caused him to meet his end?
And why the curiosity over this 400-year-old mystery?
Tycho Brahe, born to a noble family in 1546, is considered to be the founder of observational astronomy. Having lived before Galileo started using the telescope, Tycho relied on less sophisticated instruments to observe the skies. Yet, the astronomical data he meticulously gathered were astounding both in quantity and quality.
Tycho is also credited as being the first to prove that the skies beyond the moon and the planets were not immutable, as thought since the time of Aristotle. In 1573, he published De nova stella, after observing that a bright new star (in fact, a supernova explosion) had appeared in the constellation of Cassiopeia. He also showed that comets cross the skies beyond the moon, which further corroborated his idea that the heavens were constantly changing.
But his scientific work is not the only thing that made Tycho unique.
The most evident of his peculiarities was perhaps his metal prosthetic nose. Tycho’s real nose was damaged in a duel that took place during his college years in Germany. A drunken argument (apparently over a fine point of mathematics), and the fight in the dark that ensued, resulted in much of the bridge of Tycho’s nose being chopped off by his opponent’s rapier. From this event he developed an interest in medicine and alchemy. The replacement nose, made of a silver, gold, and perhaps copper, alloy and said to be remarkably realistic, was kept in place by the application of a special paste.
Presumably, the paste was useful in keeping Tycho’s nose from falling onto his plate during the many banquets he hosted in his Danish castle. If his prosthesis were to fall off, a metallic nose in a plate would have been but a little oddity amongst the many bizarre happenings in Tycho’s dwellings.
The astronomer was said to keep in his castle a dwarf named Jepp as a court jester. According to J.L.E. Dreyer, who wrote an 1890 biography of the Dane, Jepp “sat at Tycho’s feet when he was at table, and got a morsel now and then from his hand.” Tycho, who believed him to be clairvoyant, cherished the dwarf. Indeed, the astronomer often ordered silence at his feasts to make Jepp’s utterances heard by his guests.
Another member of Tycho’s household was his pet moose. Sadly, the beloved animal is said to have died tragically during one of the gatherings at the castle: the moose drunk a bit too much beer at a banquet and fell down the stairs.
Tycho’s castle, Uraniborg, which included an astronomical observatory and an alchemy laboratory, was built in 1576 on the Swedish island of Hven, then part of Denmark. King Frederick II offered the island to Tycho and funding to build an observatory in order to keep the distinguished scientist in the country. Feeling the hopes of the king, Uraniborg became an established research center where Tycho made and recorded the astronomical observations that would constitute the bulk of his life’s work.
After the king died in 1588, much of the astronomer’s funding dried up. Tycho’s influence deteriorated during the reign of Frederick’s successor, his son Christian IV, and the astronomer eventually left Hven for Prague after a series of fallouts.
When Tycho arrived in Prague in 1599, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II nominated him imperial mathematician and funded the construction of a new astronomical observatory for the scientist. Soon after, Tycho met Kepler, the German who himself later became a renowned astronomer. Kepler became Tycho’s assistant and collaborated with him until the Dane died unexpectedly just two years after arriving in Prague, aged 54.
Tycho’s death was up to standard with his bizarre life, and what exactly caused him to pass away remains a mystery. The first accounts suggested that he died because his bladder burst, 11 days after attending a royal banquet. Tycho is said to have contracted a bladder infection while at the feast because he had been too polite to excuse himself to go to the toilet.
But bladder ruptures are uncommon and experts say that a urinary infection resulting from a kidney malady would be a more likely cause of death. However, the most recent observations point out yet another possibility.
When Tycho’s tomb was opened in 1901 samples from his remains were collected, including a chunk of his prominent mustache. Analysis conducted on the sample as recently as the 1990s revealed abnormally high concentrations of mercury. After this discovery, conspiracy theories regarding the astronomer’s death swirled.
The mercury poisoning could have been accidental. After all, physicians at the time prescribed mercury for the cure of ailments such as syphilis, or Tycho himself could have handled the quicksilver during his alchemy experiences. But some historians suggest that he could have been purposefully poisoned. And there are at least two suspected of perpetuating the crime.
Kepler, his dedicated pupil, is one of them. He benefited from Tycho’s death, replacing the Dane in his chair of imperial mathematician just two days after he died. Moreover, he was then able to take hold of Tycho’s astronomical records, which he had guarded closely. It was these data that Kepler used to derive his famous laws of planetary motion.
New theories, however, point out another culprit: Christian IV. The king is said to have ordered Eric Brahe, Tycho’s cousin, to administer a fatal dose of mercury into his drink. Supposedly, the astronomer had had an affair with Christian’s mother, which naturally enraged the king. (Indeed, another rumor has it that Tycho could be the father of a Danish king.)
Only disinterring the body a second time could help solve the mystery behind Tycho’s death. It took Jens Vellev, a professor at Aarhus University in Denmark and the man responsible for Tycho’s most recent exhumation, almost 10 years to get permission to open the tomb. He, however, does not “buy the murder theories surrounding [Tycho] Brahe’s death”, according to the New York Times. While Vellev is more inclined to believe that the astronomer ingested mercury accidentally, or as self-medication for his urinary infection, he still wants to know exactly what killed him. The exhumation is also intended to help find out more about the astronomer’s fascinating life.
Tycho’s remains are now back six feet under in the church in Prague’s Old Town Square where he was first buried. Professor Vellev’s team will be analyzing the samples with top technology — exams include DNA testing of his hair, dental examination and a CT scan of his bones and nose — until next spring. New clues into Tycho’s bizarre life and puzzling death will only then be revealed.