Posted in Biographies

The astronomer with the silver nose: Tycho Brahe

Tycho Brahe was a Danish nobleman and the most skilful astronomer of the sixteenth century. He was paid by King Frederick II of Denmark to observe the heavens from his underground observatory with the naked eye. It would be thirty years until the telescope would be invented.

Tacho before and after his life changing injuries

Tycho watched the movements of the planets more precisely than anyone in Europe had done before him. His discoveries were astonishing and dangerous  because in the sixteenth century it was commonly believed that the universe had not changed since the beginning of time. To believe otherwise could lead to charges of heresy for which the punishment was often death.

Tycho_Brahe's_Stjerneborg
Drawing of the above ground parts of Tycho Brahe’s underground observatory “Stjerneborg”.

In 1577 Tycho observed a  great comet and he realised that it must have come from beyond the moon. This would mean that the Tudor belief that solid spheres held up other planets were totally wrong.

He saw what we would now call a supernova in 1572.  This is when a star explodes and becomes far brighter which makes it more visible. Tycho knew the sky so well and he was sure that the new star had not been there before.

In England, Queen Elizabeth I summoned the astrologer Thomas Allen, “to have his advice about the new Star that appeared in the Cassiopeia to which he gave his Judgement very learnedly”, as the antiquary John Aubrey recorded in his memoranda a century later.

Tycho_Cas_SN1572
The supernova of 1572 

In 1566 Tycho lost half of his nose and seriously scarred his forehead in a sword duel against his third cousin, Manderup Parsberg at a wedding dance. For the rest of his life Tycho, wore a prosthetic nose, said to be made of silver and kept in place with wheat paste glue. In November 2012, Danish and Czech researchers, after chemically analysing a small bone sample from the nose from the body exhumed in 2010, reported that the prosthetic was actually made out of brass.

Artificial nose, 17th-18th century.
Artificial nose, made of plated metal. 

Tycho’s death on 24 October 1601 aged 54 was sudden and unexpected. He contracted a urinary ailment after attending a banquet in Prague. He refused to leave the banquet to relieve himself because it would have been a breach of etiquette.

Tycho_Brahe_Grave_DSCN2900
Tycho’s grave

Once he returned home he could only urinate in very small quantities and in was excruciating pain. A contemporary physician attributed his death to a kidney stone, but no kidney stones were found during an autopsy performed after his body was exhumed in 1901. A  20th-century medical assessment was that his death is more likely to have resulted from a serious complication of chronic kidney disease or acute kidney injury.

A study in 2012 suggested that the accumulation of mercury may have come from the precipitation of mercury dust from the air during his long-term alchemistic activities. Tycho is buried in the Church of Our Lady before Týn, in Old Town Square near the Prague Astronomical Clock (pictured above).

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Sources:

BBC ‘What the Tudors did for us,’ by Alan Hart-Davis: 2002

Oliver Lawson Dick, ed., Aubrey’s Brief Lives. Edited from the Original Manuscripts, 1949, s.v. “Thomas Allen” p. 5.

Astronomer Tycho Brahe ‘not poisoned’, says expert”. news.bbc.co.uk. 2012-11-15. Retrieved 2012-11-15

Tierney, John (November 29, 2010). “Murder! Intrigue! Astronomers?”. New York Times

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I love Tudor history and my bookshelves seem to groan a bit more every year...

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