Tycho Brahe: The Drinking Man's Thinking Man

Like most trust-fund party boys, astronomer Tycho Brahe came fully outfitted with a less-than-endearing arrogant side. Of course, that's not to say his hubris was totally misplaced. As a child, it didn't take Tycho very long to realize that he possessed not only a lot more mental power than most of his peers, but also a lot more money. His genius came naturally, of course, but his privileged upbringing was a bit more contrived ... to say the least.

While the Danish astronomer may be remembered as one of science's biggest celebrities, Tycho's parents were a few stars short of a Big Dipper. In a grand act of misplaced kindness, Mom and Pop Brahe, Beate and Otte, took pity on Otte's childless brother, Jorgen, by promising him their first-born son. And though they changed their minds when baby Tycho came along on December 14, 1546, Jorgen kept his end of the bargain. He bided his time until Beate gave birth to a second son, then kidnapped young Tycho. Naturally, the youngster's parents were outraged -that is, until they remembered that Jorgen was filthy rich and their erstwhile son would inherit his fortune. So, in yet another display of questionable decision-making, Tycho's parents let Jorgen keep the boy.

This strange transaction gave Tycho an enormous edge. Not only did he grow up in a setting of great wealth, but he also had access to fantastic educational opportunities. At the urging of his uncle (er, father), Tycho studied law at the University of Copenhagen beginning at the age of 13, but his interest quickly waned. Instead of pursuing a legal career, Brahe became convinced he could predict planetary motions better than anyone had during the previous two millennia. He was, of course, correct.


In 1562, Tycho left Copenhagen to study at the University of Leipzig, and it wasn't long before he started making good on his promise of becoming astronomy's newest superstar. On August 17, 1563, he recorded a "conjunction," or close encounter, of Jupiter and Saturn -a discovery that contradicted existing Copernican and Alfonsine tables of planetary positions. Our brash hero promptly declared the charts wholly inaccurate and set out to accumulate and record new data on the location and movement of everything in the heavens. It was the kind of goal that would take a lifetime to achieve, and that's precisely how long he intended to devote to his efforts.

After his stint at Leipzig, Tycho attended the University of Rostock to undertake further studies in math and astronomy. There, the 20-year-old famously fought a duel with fellow student Manderup Parsbjerg. And while this wouldn't have been out of the ordinary if the object of contention had been a bright-eyed lass (or even how to pronounce Manderup Parsbjerg), the two men actually drew swords over who was the better mathematician. It's likely both were quite brilliant, but they were also equally lacking in common sense. Turns out, the genius combatants dueled like fools -in the dark of night. It took only a few minutes of flailing about before Parsbjerg's sword sliced off the bridge of Tycho's nose. Fortunately, it wasn't too much of a setback for Tycho. Being crafty and rich, he simply created a replacement schnoz molded from gold and copper.


The ambitious Tycho put his new nose to the grindstone and continued meticulously recording the movements of objects in the sky. After so much time looking to the heavens, he was stunned to walk outside on the night of November 11, 1572, and see something he's never laid eyes on before. A bright light appeared in the constellation Cassiopeia, where no star had existed previously. Tycho observed the star (now known to be a supernova) during the next several nights and discovered the location of the object never changed, thus proving the object was far beyond the realm of the planets. He determined this using a phenomenon called parrallax -a technique whereby the nearness of a heavenly object can be determined in relation to more distant stars. Discovering a new star was a big deal in the 16th century, as most of the intellectual community held to the Aristotelian doctrine that the stars belonged to a fixed and unchanging firmament that had existed since Creation. For Tycho to insist that the stars could change so drastically was on par with announcing the sky was falling. Almost single-handedly, he lowered the stars from their divine podium into the realm of human study.


The astronomer's newfound fame spread, and soon, European monarchies began lining up to secure his services. King Frederick II of Denmark persuaded Tycho stay in his native land by granting him the title to the island of Hven, located in Copenhagen Sound. He also offered Tycho the financial backing necessary to build the greatest observatory of his era -a giant astronomy complex Tycho christened "Uraniborg" after Urania, the Greek muse of the heavens.

A year after taking possession of Hven, Tycho made another landmark discovery. In 1577, he observed a comet in the sky and was able to prove (using parralax, of course) that its orbit existed beyond that of the Moon. This meant comets were not, as everyone thought, burning masses of gas trapped in Earth's atmosphere -yet another observation that shook the Aristotelian belief in a static sky.

Uraniborg quickly became a haven for scientists and intellectuals wishing to look over Tycho's shoulder. Consequently, he soon outgrew the space and built a second observatory, called Stjerneborg (literally "Castle of the Stars") next door. By the time it was done, Hven was home to a sprawling collection of buildings and instruments of Tycho's design -all for the purpose of making the most precise celestial measurements anyone had ever seen.

(Image credit: Flickr user Olli Wilkman)


Not all of Tycho's nocturnal activities at Hven were scientific, though. In fact, Tycho's life there was more "Animal House" than Harvard Observatory. He was notorious for drinking copious amounts of alcohol, throwing huge parties, and keeping a little person around the house as his court jester. But Tycho's charmed life on Hven was too good to last. After King Frederick died, the astronomer's self-indulgent behavior forced him out of favor with the royal family and off the island.

Looking for his next benefactor, Tycho landed a job in Prague as Imperial Mathematician to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. There, with the help of his assistant, the soon-to-be-famous Johannes Kepler, he began compiling his star charts into a work called the Rudolfine Tables, named in honor of his new patron.

(Image credit: Flickr user Gauis Caecilius)

This was the final phase of Tycho's career, and it was short-lived. While attending a banquet in 1601, he followed his custom of drinking to excess. But, bound by the etiquette of the day, Tycho couldn't leave the table until his host did -not even to go to the bathroom. Unfortunately, the master of ceremonies was in a talkative mood, and no amount of squirming could save the brilliant astronomer. Tycho braved it out until his bladder burst, and a fatal infection soon followed. He died eleven days after the party, on October 24. Shortly before he passed away, Tycho Brahe reportedly suggested his own epitaph: "He lived like a sage and died like a fool."

(Image credit: Wikpedia user Robert Scarth)

In 1991, scientists began examining hair acquired from a 1901 exhumation of Tycho's remains and determined that signs of mercury poisoning were present. Investigators originally assumed the mercury was due to his alchemical studies, but further examination proved the substance had been ingested. This may have resulted from a futile attempt to cure Tycho's conditions, but a few historians believe that Johannes Kepler poisoned his mentor in an attempt to get his hands on the old man's peerless charts.


This article by William S. Kirby is reprinted with permission from the March/April 2005 issue of mental_floss magazine.

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