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Tycho Brahe (Eduard Ender / Public Domain)

SCIENCE & TECH: Who was Tycho Brahe? Astronomy with a Naked Eye (and a Missing Nose)


The name Tycho Brahe is not a familiar one to most people. And those who have heard the name, perhaps in the same sentence as Copernicus, or Galileo, may struggle to remember what the man himself was famous for.

Perhaps the most strange thing about Tycho is his nose. Lost in a duel aged 20, Tycho wore a silver prosthesis for much of his life. But, strange as this may seem, it is only a footnote in the story of the great man.

Born into a noble family in the year 1546 in Denmark, Tycho Brahe devoted much of his life to astronomy. He had been encouraged when, as a little boy, he observed an eclipse, and was profoundly moved by the concept of vast celestial orbs moving in and amongst one another. He developed an unshakeable curiosity in this field of science.

Tycho was to devote his entire life to measuring the positions of the moon, sun, planets, and stars, all without the use of a telescope. He kept meticulous notes, recording his observations every day and night, year after year. And his patience, and attention to detail, was to be richly rewarded.

Mastering the Knowledge of Astronomy 

Tycho had a principal ambition behind his scientific studies: to understand and to be able to predict eclipses. He studied astronomy and mathematics in Germany, and in the year 1571, at the age of 25, he built his own observatory, one of the finest in Europe, on an island given to him along with a grant by the King of Denmark.

Tycho named his observatory Uraniborg, the “Castle of Urania” the muse of astronomy, and moved to live there, devoting his life to observations of the heavens. The main goal of Tycho was to determine the positions and movements of all of the planets and stars with the utmost accuracy possible.

Tycho Brahe (Eduard Ender / Public Domain )

To do this, he needed exacting instruments to record his observations of the night sky. Tycho developed these instruments himself, to accurately measure the movements, and where possible the physical size of stars and planets he saw.

To provide independent confirmation of his observations, he built a second observatory he called Stjerneborg (“Star Castle”), isolated from the first and built underground. With these multiple observations, he was able to eliminate errors from his work and confirm his findings.

Great Achievements

Despite this drawback of not using a telescope, Tycho was able to amass a large collection of accurate observations about the stars and planets, creating star catalogues which were drawn on for centuries to come.

One of his other biggest achievements was the discovery of the annual variation of the Moon. He discovered that there was a variation of the Moon’s orbital speed, which is associated with the gravitational pull of the Sun.

As a result, there is an annual periodicity due to a varying distance between the Sun and the Earth within the course of a year. Based on these findings, Tycho was also able to calculate the length of a year to the determined accuracy of a few seconds.

Brahe’s notebook from 1577, showing observations of a comet (Tycho Brahe / Public Domain)

Brahe’s notebook from 1577, showing observations of a comet (Tycho Brahe / Public Domain )

However, his theories were not always perfect. His “Tychonian Planetary Model” attempts to resolve the differences between Copernicus, who put the Sun at the center of the universe, with the earlier Earth-centric Ptolemaic system. In doing so Tycho erroneously places the Earth at the center of the universe, despite what his observations were telling him.

Tycho compounded his error by stating that the Sun orbits the Earth, while all of the other planets revolve around the sun. In doing so he hoped to align his observations of the stars with his physical observations of the Earth as a fixed point around him.

The Death of Tycho Brahe

Tycho left Denmark and moved to Prague in the year 1598. He was appointed as the Imperial Mathematician to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. And after taking up this profession, he never resumed his astronomical research program.

But his tenure in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor was short lived. Tycho Brahe died at the age of 54 in 1601 while attending a banquet, for the most stupid of reasons.

During the banquet, Tycho drank excessively. However, societal customs of the court did not allow him to leave to go to the bathroom. Trapped at the table, his bladder burst, resulting in his immediate death.

When researchers opened his grave in the year 1901, on the 300th anniversary of his death, they claimed to have found mercury in these remains. Hence, that gave rise to the rumors that he had been poisoned to death.

Some accused Johannes Kepler , heir to Tycho’s scientific research, of committing this crime. Jealous of his great achievements, had Kepler killed his rival?

Later in the year 2010, Brahe’s body was again exhumed, and tests were conducted upon his bones and beard hairs. And with the test results, it was proven that the mercury concentrations in his body were less in quantity, and that would not have killed him.

Pražské Staré Město in Prague, where Tycho Brahe is buried (Jan Polák / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Pražské Staré Město in Prague, where Tycho Brahe is buried (Jan Polák / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Further chemical analysis of the bones also indicated that Tycho was not exposed to any abnormal mercury load in the past 5 to 10 years of his life. However, they also found that Tycho was very much exposed to gold throughout his lifetime. This led to the revised assumption that, the night he died, he might have consumed gold leaf after drinking wine.

Elixirs at the time may have gold among the impurities in them, or instead, these might be contaminants from his alchemical work. There are many indefinite assumptions with the research results but no conclusion upon one verdict.

The researchers also took a bone sample from his nose to check its chemical composition. The research was revealing: far from wearing a silver nose, his false nose, in fact, was made of brass.

Conclusion

A brilliant man who refused to accept his own observations when they disagreed with the Greeks. A missing nose, lost to a duel. A brilliant life ended suddenly because of social niceties. Tycho Brahe’s contribution to history as a colorful character is undeniable.

But his meticulous, and groundbreaking contribution to astronomy is also undeniable. His cataloging of the night sky, his accurate predictions of celestial events, his notes on a supernova made during the course of his work at Uraniborg, all have proven to be accurate, a testament to his honesty and rigor as a man of science.

Top Image: Statue of Tycho Brahe, characteristically looking up. Source: Sven Rosborn / CC BY-SA 3.0 .

By Bipin Dimri



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