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May 01

Biography: Tycho Brahe

I really want to do a biography on LBJ, but every time I sit down to write it, I get distracted. Then I came across Tycho Brahe, and knew I had to write about him. Tycho Brahe might not be a household name, like Newton, or Einstein, but he discovered the supernova, and was instrumental in our understanding of the cosmos. Also, he had one of the most entertaining lives ever lived.

Tycho Brahe was born in what is now Sweden, in 1546. At the time, that part of the world was part of Denmark. He came from a wealthy and powerful family. At a young age he was raised by his aunt and uncle… for some reason. He was the oldest of 12 children, and the only one not raised by his parents. He studied law, but had a passion for astronomy, and after seeing an eclipse in 1560, decided to focus on the cosmos.

His obsession with the night’s sky fueled his desire for finer accuracy. The aforementioned eclipse was a day off from the prediction. So he spent most of his life meticulously fine tuning the tools and the findings of the day. Each day. Every day. He believed that the only way to have accurate information was to document everything.

Unfortunately, Brahe’s uncle insisted that he focus on becoming a civil servant, like the rest of the family, and sent him to study abroad in Europe, under the tutelage of Anders Sorensen Vedel, a priest and historian. Brahe convinced Vedel that he should be studying astronomy, and they headed to Leipzig. Here, he began compiling data on everything he observed. This was before the internet, so this information became one of the most important databases in human history.

By 1566, his uncle had died from pneumonia, which he got from saving the king from drowning after a night of drinking, and Brahe had begun studying medicine in Germany. By the end of the year, he and a fellow student (and Brahe’s distant cousin), Manderup Parsberg, began to have a disagreement on a mathematical formula. Naturally, they decided to settle it the way all scientific disagreements are settled… with a duel. During the duel, Parsberg cut off part of Brahe’s nose. While the two later became good friends, Brahe spent the rest of his life wearing a fake nose make of brass, though the stories claimed that it was made of gold. Perhaps he had a gold nose for special occasions.

In 1571, he married a commoner, Kirsten Jorgensdatter. However, due to him being a nobleman, it was a weird semiofficial marriage, where their children would basically be bastards, with no claim to his name or land. In any case, his family was pissed. They were married for 30 years, had 8 children, 6 lived to adulthood, and 1 died from the plague.

A year later, he observed a supernova. At the time, it was believed, that while the moon and sun moved, the rest of the stars were permanent. By seeing a new star in the constellation Cassiopeia, he realized that the Aristotle concept of the universe was inaccurate.

After helping the king recruit artists and sculptors from throughout Europe, the king decided to repay Brahe with land, titles, etc. You know, the usual monarchistic stuff. Brahe didn’t want to be a politician, so he finally accepted the island of Hven, on which he would build an observatory. Thus, he became the Lord of Hven, with the power to run the island and it’s inhabitants, as he saw fit. At some point, the families sued him for charging so much in taxes, requiring them to grow twice as many crops, and forcing them to build his castle. The courts sided with Brahe.

He named his castle/observatory Uraniborg, after the muse of astronomy. Instead of being used for military purposes, it was designed as a center for the sciences. There, he had his own printing press, made his own paper, had tunnels dedicated to getting water to run his printing press, and even had an underground laboratory with 16 furnaces for his experiments.

In addition to studying alchemy, he also used his knowledge of the cosmos to predict the future, as most did at the time. But since his tools and information were far more precise, his astrological horoscopes were favored by the nobles. He became the royal astrologer. Which sounds like silliness now, but at the time, was an important position.

It’s at this point, where Brahe’s life gets interesting. I mentioned at one point, that he came from some of the most powerful families. Perhaps I didn’t make that clear enough. At a certain point, he had 1% of the country’s revenue. In addition, it is estimated that the king paid up to 5 times that much building Uraniborg. In modern times, you often hear about the 1%. Brahe was the 1%. All of it. Instead of a few families owning 1% of the money, HE had that much.

As such, he often threw extravagant parties with the elite. He owned a domesticated elk. One night, he… I mean the elk… drank too much beer, fell down some stairs and died. The elk died. Brahe also owned a little person named Jepp. Jepp, it has been argued, may have been schizophrenic, or as Brahe put it, “had psychic powers”. Jepp was Brahe’s court jester, and was forced to eat under the table. Because, where else are you going to put a dwarf?

Brahe also got into lots of arguments with fellow scientists. He accused some of stealing his work. Others accused him of stealing their work. It was like the Star Wars vs Star Trek nerds (Star Trek is better, by the way), but back when humans weren’t sure if the sun went around the earth or not. Now, this isn’t to diminish Brahe’s addition to the scientific knowledge, but I just wanted to point out these crazy stories.

Years later, the King, Frederick II died, and was replaced by his son, Christian IV, who was only 11. As such, a regent was put in charge. That person was Christoffer Valkendorff, who disliked Brahe for “an argument they had”. Some have claimed that Brahe seduced Christian IV’s mother, the queen. In any case, Brahe fell out of favor with the new king, who was a child, and more interested in battle than knowledge. In 1597, Brahe fled to Hamberg, and eventually Prague, where he became the Imperial Court Astronomer for Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor, which while a ridiculous court position, is a badass title.

Brahe tried to return to Copenhagen, but after he was denied, he wrote the poem, Elegy to Dania (Eulogy of Denmark), where he criticized them of not recognizing his brilliance. Brahe’s family eventually joined him at Prague, and were even treated like nobility.

Brahe continued to research the stars, and took Johannes Kepler as his assistant. You may have heard Kepler’s name before. He has a moon crater, a Mars crater, NASA missions, launch sites, colleges, and even an Nvidia video card named after him. Well Brahe was his mentor.

In 1601, when Brahe was 54, he died. For centuries, there had been conspiracy theories floating around his death. Apparently, he was at a feast, and refused to relieve himself, because it would be poor etiquette. When he finally got home, he was unable to empty his bladder, and he died in excruciating pain 11 days later. During this point, he opined his own epitaph, “He lived like a sage and died like a fool”.

Some alleged that he died from mercury poisoning. One theory was that Kepler killed him to gain access to all of his documentation on the stars (which, as I said previously, was one of the most important databases ever compiled). Another theory was that Christian IV had him assassinated. In the 1990s, Brahe’s body was examined, and it was reexamined in 2010. The most recent study found no poisons in his body, and the trace amounts of mercury on his beard, were external, and most likely the result of his work in alchemy. What we now know, is that he died because his bladder ‘sploded, and the urea entered his blood stream, leading to toxic shock.

Brahe revolutionized our understanding of the universe. While he certainly got things wrong (he thought the sun revolved around the earth), his detailed observations and study inspired the next generation of scientists. Yet despite that, his name is largely unknown to the average population. Did I mention his elk got drunk?


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