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Storytellers: The Last Naked Eye

By Seth Freilich | Pajiba Storytellers | November 9, 2011 |

By Seth Freilich | Pajiba Storytellers | November 9, 2011 |

“When I had satisfied myself that no star of that kind had ever shone before, I was led into such perplexity by the unbelievability of the thing that I began to doubt the faith of my own eyes. ”
     —Tycho Brahe (from 1602’s posthumously-published “Astronomiae instauratae progymnasmata”)

We open on a spectacular celestial event, a supernova. A star has lived its unfathomably long life and goes out in one final blaze of glory. It is an explosion both terrifying and beautiful — up to five billion times brighter than the sun, matter is pushed away at speeds of up to 44 million miles per hour. Almost every atom on this planet came from such an explosion. We pull back and away from this supernova, traveling across some eight or nine thousand light years, until we reach Earth. We fall down through the atmosphere to Denmark, where a man stands on a field, looking up at this spatially and temporally distant explosion.

The year is 1572 and that man is Tycho Brahe. Shortly after the turn of the century, mankind would invent the telescope, expanding humanity’s view and retroactively making Brahe the last naked-eye astronomer. Brahe spent his career meticulously observing and logging celestial events. His decades-long measurements of the planets’ movements was data that Kepler would later spend 20 years interpreting. That would lead to Kepler’s laws of planetary motion which, in turn, would lead Isaac Newton to formulate his theory of gravity. Brahe’s empirical approach to stargazing and his rigorously precise methodology is recognized as playing a key role in the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. One of the most prominent craters on the moon is named after Brahe, a hard drinker who spent decades living in a castle on an island. He lost his nose in a duel. He had a pet moose which died after drinking too much beer. He, himself, died of a mysterious ailment which a recent (albeit questionable) theory posits was akin to Salieri poisoning Amadeus, with the role of Salieri being played by the very same Kepler who would go on to use Brahe’s research to such great ends. Oh, and he kept a court jester (called Jepp), who was a dwarf Brahe believed to be clairvoyant. Ladies and gentlemen, the life and times of Tycho Brahe.

“Those who study the stars have God for a teacher. ”
     —Tycho Brahe (date and source unknown)

Brahe-stamp.jpgTycho Brahe was born in December 1546, the second of ten eventual brothers and sisters. His father having been descended from Swedish nobility, Brahe was raised in the type of social and political atmosphere which comes with certain expected aspirations. So it was in 1559 that he was sent to the University of Copenhagen to study rhetoric and philosophy, with the plan that he would then go study law and gear up for being a political heavyweight.

The next year, however, Brahe’s path began to divert from these “noble” pursuits. On August 21, 1560, the world witnessed a solar eclipse, and the young Brahe was taken by the fact that there were published books and tables correctly predicting the precise moment of the eclipse. He fell in love with the notion of using science to predict future celestial events which in his mind, given his belief in astrology, tied directly to predicting future events here on Earth. (Much later in his life, Brahe would eventually give up his astrological beliefes and Kepler noted that Brahe’s last days saw the conduct of astronomical research free of any of the nonsense that belief in astrology brings with it.)

And so Brahe began studying astronomy in general, and planetary motion in particular. But he was forced to do this in secret. So when he was sent away to a tutor in 1562 to begin learning jurisprudence, for example, he would use his every free moment to secret away and teach himself more math and science.

By the age of only 17, Brahe had already found the work of other astronomers sloppy and lacking. In 1563, he’s reported as noting: “I’ve studied all available charts of the planets and stars and none of them match the others. There are just as many measurements and methods as there are astronomers and all of them disagree. What’s needed is a longterm project with the aim of mapping the heavens conducted from a single location over a period of several years.” And so Brahe committed himself to a rigorous methodology of data collection and analysis, having found his own work superior to the then-available prediction tables. In 1565, he returned home a wealthy man, thanks to an inheritance, and he fully abandoned the law for his practice of astronomy. He did this under constant derision and disapproval from his family and friends, which eventually wore on him to the point that he decided to leave home once again, this time to visit Germany.

In December of the following year, 1566, he found himself residing in Rostoch, Germany, and on December 10 he went to a wedding feast where he ran into a nobleman from back home, the magnificently-named Manderupius Pasbergius (his name has also been reported as Manderup Parsbjerg, still rather solid). They got into an argument over math, as men of this ilk and of Brahe’s temperament are wont to do, rumored to be over which of the two was a better mathematician. When they bumped into each other again a few weeks later, the argument was renewed and grew even more heated, presumably fueled by Brahe’s love of drinking.

The argument became so heated, in fact, that Tycho and Manderupius agreed to a sword duel. Under the dark of night on December 29, Brahe and Pasbergius matched off, and Manderupius got the better of Tycho, lopping off the front of his nose and thereby winning their feud. As a result, Tycho spent the rest of his days wearing a cemented-on metal nose that he fashioned for himself out of a combination of gold and silver (a 1901 excavation of Brahe’s tomb, however, suggests that he may have eventually replaced this model with a copper nose).

“The noble Tycho placed the stars, each in its due location;
He lost his nose by spite of Mars, but that was no privation;
Had he lost his mouth, I grant he would have felt dismay, sir.
Bless you!, he knew what he should want, to drink his bottle a day, sir!”
     —Anonymous (from “The Astronomer’s Drinking Song,” published in Augustus De Morgan’s 1866 “Budget of Paradoxes”)

Metal-Nose.jpgMeanwhile, now having some money to begin developing the type of astronomical instruments he really wanted and needed for his work, Brahe hired local artists, clockmakers, jewelers, smiths and carpenters to build a large device — a quadrant — about 40 feet long to measure minutes of degree in the sky. Requiring twenty men to move it, he had the quadrant set up in Ausburg, and spent the next several years conducting detailed night sky observations and calculations. He finally returned home to Denmark in 1571, with a friend in Ausburg agreeing to continue taking measurements for Brahe.

Returning home, Brahe’s uncle set him up with both an observatory and a chemistry lab. Brahe found himself distracted from his astronomical pursuits as he focused more on the chemistry lab, hoping that alchemy would afford him further riches to fund his travels. But in November of the following year, his heart and mind were pulled back into focusing on astronomy when, on the night of November 11, Brahe found himself looking at a “new” star he never seen before.

“[On the 11th day of November 1572], in the evening, after sunset, when, according to my habit, I was contemplating the stars in a clear sky, I noticed that a new and unusual star, surpassing all others in brilliancy, was shining almost directly over my head; and since I had, almost from boyhood, known all the stars of the heavens perfectly (there is no great difficulty in gaining that knowledge), it was quite evident to me that there had never before been any star in that place in the sky, even the smallest, to say nothing of a star so conspicuously bright as this. I was so astonished at this sight that I was not ashamed to doubt the trustworthiness of my own eyes. But when I observed that others, too, on having the place pointed out to them, could see that there was a star there, I had no further doubts. A miracle indeed, either the greatest of all that have occurred in the whole range of nature since the beginning of the world, or one certainly that is to be classed with those attested by the Holy Oracles.”
     —Tycho Brahe (from 1573’s “De Nova Stella”)

sn1572-remnant.jpgIt is unclear exactly when the supernova now known as SN 1572 first “appeared” in our night sky, although we know it was sometime between November 2 and November 6 of that year. As Brahe’s observations and studies show, it was visible to the naked eye for about 16 months. At its brightest, it shone white and as large as Venus. Over time, it’s color shifted and faded from yellow to red to blue.

Brahe published his studies of this new celestial event late in 1573. He was hesitant to publish at first on the pretext that his work was not “perfect.” He later admitted that the real reason behind his hesitancy to publish was that he thought it was disgraceful for a nobleman such as himself to be seen publicly conducting and writing about such work. This concern was rather ironic given the fact that, at the same time, Tycho was falling in love with a peasant girl who he would marry around the same time his work was eventually published. His family was wholly unfazed by the publication, but taken aback by the news of Tycho’s marriage. In fact, they took to this news so poorly that the King of Denmark found himself forced to step in and settle down the Brahe family drama.

In fact, the King of Denmark was rather a fan of Brahe by this point, and was becoming increasingly perturbed by the fact that Brahe was not doing more within Denmark for science. So he decided to grant Brahe one hell of a boon — a lifetime lease of a small island called Hven, located between Denmark and Sweeden, upon which the King would build an observatory, a chemistry lab, and a home for Brahe and his family.

Unsurprisingly, Brahe graciously accepted this gift.

“With insufficient data it is easy to go wrong.”
     —Carl Sagan (from 1980’s “Cosmos”)

Uraniborg.jpgThe island of Hven was six miles across, containing a single village of about 40 people. In the middle, Tycho had Uraniborg (meaning the City or Castle of the Heavens) built. Uraniborg included two tower observatories, a museum, a library, a subterraneous laboratory and a forty-foot well. Tycho later added an additional observatory he called Stiernberg (“the Mountain of the Stars”) which was built underground to protected certain larger instruments from the elements. Uraniborg, the first building in the world designed primarily to be used as a place of astronomical observation and study, was ornamentally designed with pictures of astronomers and inscribed poems about astronomy. Not only did Uraniborg act as a scientific observatory, but Tycho established it as a place of scientific learning and education — over the decades, Brahe would often board six to twelve pupils in Uraniborg, teaching them science and training them to act as his assistants.

Brahe started to garner widespread fame as one of the premiere astronomers and scientists of the time and, over the years, while collecting an annual pension of several thousand dollars from the King, he would entertain frequent guests, including scientists, philosophers and nobles alike. Over the next few years, Brahe’s life was generally without incident as he played host, teacher and scientific observer (though there was the tale of the bastardly Paul Witichius, who took advantage of Brahe’s hospitality for three months only to return to Germany where, as Tycho would not learn until five years later, he started laying claim to Brahe’s inventions and methods as if they were his own).

But the winds began to change for Tycho in 1588 when King Frederick died, being succeeded by his 11-year-old son Christian IV. This provided the perfect opening for those jealous of Tycho’s renown and desirous of their own fame and power in place of his. The young King had, within his inner circle, just such enemies of Tycho who counseled Christian to take back what his father had given to Tycho.

The battle took a while, but Brahe’s enemies were ultimately successful in their assault, primarily by manipulating the public. For example, a “committee” was set up to look into how “useful” Tycho’s work was to the government and the public, but the two-man committee was rigged by Brahe’s enemies, and ultimately reported that there was no value and, worse yet, that his work was detrimental to the greater good of the nation. On top of that, the public was eventually made to understand just how depleted the national treasury was, such that resentment was grown for the money and gifts that had been given to Brahe. And so they were taken from him.

No more pensions.

No more island of Hven.

No more free reign to conduct his scientific endeavors.

And so, in the spring of 1597, Tycho left Hven. He took his smaller and more portable instruments with him and set up in a house in Copenhagen. However, he quickly realized that he had to leave the country entirely, abandoning his native Denmark, so overwhelming had the contempt and distrust become.

Thus, once the plague and pestilence left Prague, Tycho presented himself and his case to Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungry, Croatia and Boehmia. Rudolf was a patron of the arts and deeply interested in and devoted to astrology and alchemy, and he found Tycho’s presentation persuasive. Thus, he agreed to give Brahe virtually everything Tycho had given up in his homeland — the title of imperial astronomer and mathematician, a pension, an estate for his family and their heirs, and his pick of any of the local castles to acts as his observatory and laboratory.

“How does one do that? How does one kill a man? It’s one thing to dream about it. Very different when, when you, when you have to do it with your own hands.”
     —Salieri (from 1984’s

keplers-laws-diagram.jpgOnce Brahe was up and running in Prague, he turned to setting up an astronomical school. Having heard of Johannes Kepler, an up-and-coming German astronomer working and publishing in Austria, Brahe invited Kepler to come to Prague and spend some time at the new school. Thus, in 1600, Kepler came to Prague and began working with some of Brahe’s data. Kepler was particularly focused on Brahe’s data about Mars, which he thought he could use to prove some of his own theories about planetary motion. Although Brahe was very guarded and secretive with his data, Kepler impressed him such that he was given wide access to Brahe’s Mars-related data.

The two quickly had a falling out, in part because Brahe would not let Kepler copy the data, which meant Kepler would have to stay in Prague for up to two years to conduct the work he wanted to do. Kepler left in a rage, only to return several months later after a reconciliation. Brahe formally hired Kepler as his assistant and the two worked together for a year, until Brahe’s surprising death the following fall.

In the fall of 1601, while attending a banquet dinner at a fellow nobleman’s home, Brahe “was seized with a retention of urine.” According to Kepler, who was also at the banquet, Brahe refused to excuse himself from the dinner as it would not have been proper etiquette, and later speculation was that this was the onset of the mysterious bladder and kidney illness which plagued Brahe for the next week. He spent this period, in between bouts of delirium, trying to piss and sleep, but finding himself able to do much of either. On October 24, 1601, the 54-year-old Brahe died.

heavenly-intrigue.jpgAt the time, Brahe’s death was thought to be the result of kidney stones. However, his body was exhumed in 1901 and no kidney stones were found, leading the primary cause of death to be considered renal failure. Almost a century later, in 1996, tests were done on hair samples that had been taken during that exhumation and it was found that Brahe had a high level of mercury in his body at the time he died. Renal failure is a classic symptom of mercury poisoning, so this quickly led to rampant speculation that Brahe actually died of mercury poisoning.

The truth remains unknown, although 2004’s much-derided and challenged Heavenly Intrigue: Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and the Murder Behind One of History’s Greatest Scientific Discoveries posits that Brahe was murdered by Kepler to get at his scientific data. Whether true or not, it makes for at least a compelling fiction given that, after Brahe’s death, Kepler stole all of Brahe’s data and used it for his future endeavors. And, just two days after Tycho died, Kepler was appointed the new imperial mathematician, and spent the next eleven years providing astrological advice to Emperor Rudolf.

How Brahe died may make for an interesting conclusion to his story but, whether it was murder or accident (or even, as some suggest, self-inflicted), it does not lessen the drama of his story. Brahe was a fascinating man: irritable to and irritated by many, but kind to his students and colleagues; a deeply pious and religious man, but also jocular and witty; a lover of satire and mockery, but impatient when he, himself, was the butt of a joke. Tycho Brahe was a prime example that religion and science need not be enemies — as Sir David Brewster put it, “[h]is familiarity with the wonders of the heavens increased, instead of diminishing, his admiration of Divine wisdom and his daily conversation was elevated by a constant reference to a superintending Providence.” Brahe ultimately catalogued over 700 stars and compiled thentofore unforeseen amounts of data about the moon and planets.

“Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.”
     —Richard Feynman (from 1965’s “The Character of Physical Law”)

But wait, you might be saying. What of the drunken pet moose and clairvoyant dwarf?

Of course we saved the crazy for last.

As for the moose, the story is pretty simple — in the 1590’s, Brahe had a pet, domesticated moose. As a result of some correspondence with a German friend, Brahe actually intended to send the moose to his friend. Before doing this, however, he had taken the pet moose to the castle of another, nearby nobleman, to show it off during a banquet. As everyone ate, however, the moose got into a stash of beer and got so drunk that it fell down some stairs, breaking its leg and, shortly thereafter, dying.

But as an 1841 biography eloquently put it, “the most extraordinary of all [Tycho’s] peculiarities remains to be noticed.” Namely, Jepp.

Jepp was a dwarf who resided in Uraniborg. Whenever Brahe sat down to eat, Jepp would lay by his feet, being fed like a pet by Tycho. Brahe believed Jepp to be a fortune teller, and carefully took note of everything Jepp said. The story goes that whenever someone on Hven got sick, Jepp could predict, without fail, whether they would live or die. Tycho so believed in Jepp’s powers that if Jepp began to speak during a party, Brahe would gruffly order everyone to be silent so they could all hear Jepp’s forthcoming prediction.

Unfortunately, nobody knows what became of Jepp.

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
     —Isaac Newton (from a 1676 letter to Robert Hooke)

That was the life and times of Tycho Brahe.

It’s got an easy log-line to sell to the studios, doesn’t it? “Think Amadeus meets the first half of A Beautiful Mind.” Sure, not a summer tentpole kind of movie, but certainly a fall Oscar contender. There’s royal and political drama and intrigue, nerd fights, a nose-losing duel, a “forbidden love” story, a drunk moose, and an ending that’s steeped in intrigue. You tell me I can have Patrick Wilson as Brahe, and I’ll quit my job tomorrow to start writing the script.

The vast majority of the facts included above come from Sir David Brewster’s 1841 “The Martyrs of Science, or, the Lives of Galileo, Tycho Brahe and Kepler.” My humblest thanks, Sir Brewster.


Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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