12 14 tycho braheToday is the birthday of Tycho Brahe, who was born in 1546 at his ancestral home of Knutstorp Castle in what was then Denmark, but now Sweden. Brahe was an astronomer who, although he worked without a telescope, produced extremely comprehensive and accurate planetary and astronomical observations. He first became interested in astronomy at the age of thirteen when he witnessed a solar eclipse. He was particularly fascinated because it had been predicted. In 1572, he was lucky enough to witness the birth of a supernova, and clever enough to recognise it for what it was.

12 14 ptolomaic universeBrahe was born into a world where everyone believed that the stars were fixed and unchanging, hanging on a crystal sphere. It’s called celestial immutability. The universe then was built from a progressively smaller set of crystal spheres, one inside the other, with the earth at the centre. These spheres held all the stars and planets and also our sun and moon. This meant that nothing in them could change. So when a new light appeared in the sky, almost everyone thought it must be located somewhere between the earth and the moon. Brahe plotted its movement and realised that it must be much further away. In 1573, he wrote a book about it called ‘De Nova Stella’, the new star. So the ‘nova’ part of the word ‘supernova’ was coined by him. No one believed him very much, and he thought they were all pretty stupid. In his preface to De Stella Nova he says: “O crassa ingenia. O caecos coeli spectatores”, which basically means: “Oh thick wits. Oh blind watchers of the sky”. By observing and recording the movements of the heavens, he also realised that comets were not atmospheric phenomena, but must be objects that passed through the supposedly impenetrable crystal spheres.

12 14 tychonian systemAlthough Nicolaus Copernicus had, in 1543, published a theory that it was, in fact, the sun that was at the centre of the universe, The church weren’t very happy about it. Brahe came up with his own universe model where both the sun and the earth were at the centre. In Brahe’s geo-heliocentric universe, the sun and moon move round the earth, but all the other planets move round the sun. Everything rolls around inside the sphere of fixed stars. Quite how the sun and moon don’t occasionally crash into Mars in this model, I don’t know. But I bet he did, because he was all about measuring things.

But it’s really the other things in his life that I wanted to tell you about today. Tycho Brahe had a strange life and is really the most eccentric astronomer I’ve ever come across. When Brahe was two, he was pretty much kidnapped by a rich and childless uncle who raised him and paid for his education. His parents accepted this and let them get on with it.

In 1566, whilst at university, he attended the wedding of one of his professors. There, he became involved in a dispute with a fellow student over the legitimacy of a mathematical equation. Seventeen days later, they were still arguing about it. They decided to settle the matter with a duel. We don’t know who won but, although both parties survived and later made up, Brahe lost the bridge of his nose in the fight. Oh, I forgot to say, they were duelling in the dark. For the rest of his life Brahe wore a prosthetic nose made from metal. He had to stick it on with paste and keep a pot of spare paste with him at all times in case it fell off. His false nose is said to have looked very much like a real nose, so maybe he had it painted or something, because it’s not in evidence in any of his portraits. Of course, he might just have been sensitive about it. History records that his nose was made of silver and gold, but tests on his twice-exhumed body suggest that it was either copper or brass. Perhaps he had a gold and silver one that he kept for special occasions.

12 14 uraniborgTycho Brahe would have easily been able to afford a gold and silver nose if he’d wanted it, because he was extremely wealthy. At one point he owned one percent of all the wealth in Denmark. As well as coming from a wealthy family, he enjoyed the patronage of kings. He spent a year at the court of Rudolf II in Prague. Frederick II of Denmark gave him the island of Hven in Øresund. He built himself a castle and observatory there in 1576 called Uraniborg and in 1581 he built an underground observatory nearby at Stjerniborg where he found his measuring equipment was more stable and less affected by weather conditions. 12 14 stjerneborgHe lived with Kirsten Jørgensdatter and, although they were never formally married, they lived together for almost thirty years, until Tycho’s death, and had eight children. He kept a team of students at his observatory and his home seems to have been quite a busy place that required a large staff. He even had a court jester called Jeppe. Jeppe was a dwarf who Brahe was quite convinced had psychic abilities. Once during a dinner party the dwarf announced. “See how your people wash themselves in the sea.” Now, Tycho had sent two of his students off to Copenhagen and expected them back that day. Fearing them drowned, he sent someone up the tower to look out for them. The news was that there was an upturned boat on the shore and two men standing next to it who were dripping wet. Tycho was very fond of Jeppe and used to have him sit under the table during dinner and feed him scraps, which is, I suppose, what passes for fondness in sixteenth century Denmark.

12 14 elkNow that I’ve got you used to the idea of a man with a metal nose who kept a psychic dwarf under the dining table for special occasions, I’m going to mention the elk. Tycho Brahe had a pet elk, a moose, if you will. Quite a large animal. It lived with him in the castle and, when he went out anywhere, it would run alongside his carriage like a dog. The Elk, unfortunately, developed a taste for beer. We know about the Elk because of a letter a man called Lantgrave wrote to him, saying he had heard of an animal called a ‘rix’ that could run faster than a deer. Tycho replied that there was no such animal, but he had a tame elk that was pretty fast and he could send it over for an experiment. Landgrave replied saying ‘Yes please’ and he would swap it for a horse. The next letter from Tycho says that sadly, he could not send the elk because it had died after it got drunk and fell downstairs. Tycho had leant the elk to a friend to entertain his dinner guests. So the poor elk didn’t even die after falling downstairs drunk in its own castle. It died at a party.

Tycho himself met a rather unhappy end. There has been some speculation that he was poisoned after having an affair with the mother of the king. But, as I said, his body has been exhumed twice and no traces of poison have been found. Another possibility is kidney stones, but again this has been disproved. The most likely explanation is the traditional one. That he died from an infection caused by a burst bladder. This apparently happened because he felt it was bad form to get up in the middle of a banquet to relieve himself. Poor, duelling, dwarf-feeding, elk-owning Tycho Brahe died because of etiquette. He is said to have written his own epitaph: “He lived like a sage and died like a fool.” so perhaps he saw it coming.


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