Alas, poor Tycho…

Hey all, I had something completely new in the works for both the blog and podcast this week… owing to a few things happening in my day job (a pending corporate acquisition had me messing with my CV the other night. It had been years since I’d last dusted that particular file off)
I chose to run with a ’From the Vaults’ podcast episode instead.
So, this week, for you the readers, I’ve prepared a short bio of one of Denmark’s more interesting characters – and no it isn’t Lars Ulrich


One thing I can fairly confidently say in all my time on Earth; I may have gotten into a number of fights for dumb reasons, but I have never been in a duel with my cousin over mathematics. For one, my cousin Dave works with complex datasets for a living, so if he says I have the math wrong – I have the math wrong. For another, what kind of madman gets into a sword fight over maths anyway? 

Well, Tycho Brahe got into a sword fight over math with his cousin. It pales in comparison to many other Tales commonly told of the man. 

The eldest son of the mayor of Helsingborg, a young Tycho was abducted by his wealthy, eccentric uncle Jorgen. After a childhood spent living in a castle, uncle Jorgen sent him off to the University of Copenhagen to study law. Tycho observed a total eclipse of the Sun in 1560, and fell in love with Astronomy instead. He proved to be a prodigious astronomer. Early in his career he picked up Copernicus’ and Ptolemy’s astrological charts were grossly inaccurate, while observing movements between Saturn and Jupiter. While he himself would be one of the first astronomers to measure events to the second, both lots of charts were often days out. He made it his life’s goal to fix their errors. In 1566, aged 20, Tycho was touring Europe’s universities as a guest lecturer. On 10 December 1566 he was in Rostock, Saxony when he had his first quarrel with his third cousin – Manderup Parsberg. A quarrel over the nature of numbers quickly escalated, and the cousins nearly came to blows. 

The scene played out again on 27 December. The young men agreed to duel it out under the stars in a graveyard two days later. Brandishing swords the two nobles faced off against one another. Parsberg got the better of Brahe, leaving a deep gash in his forehead – and destroying the bridge of his nose. 

From Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, but you get the sense…

In an age before much which could be called plastic surgery, the astronomer spent the rest of his life gluing a prosthetic nose to his face every morning. Legend claimed his fake nose was made of gold and silver, though people now believe it was made of brass. The cousins would make amends. Parsberg became an ambassador to Scotland, playing a part in the return of Orkney to the Scots. On Brahe’s death, his obituaries branded Parsberg ‘the man who cut off Tycho Brahe’s nose’ – overshadowing the cousin’s diplomatic work. This made Parsberg furious.  

I could write of the time in 1572 when Tycho discovered a supernova in the constellation Cassiopeia. That a star could blow up so dramatically flew in the face of Aristotle’s theory that ‘celestial spheres’ rotated eternally at a fixed rate. This was a big deal – especially given he slightly preceded Galileo (who narrowly avoided a death sentence for insisting the sun rather than Earth, was the centre of our galaxy). He was also roughly contemporary with Giordano Bruno, a monk and scientist who ran afoul of the Vatican. Bruno was stripped naked, tied upside down to a stake and then set aflame in a public square – for (among other things) insisting the Milky Way is one of countless galaxies in the universe – and that many of these galaxies would have planets which sustained life. Aristotelean theory, you see, was upheld as seriously as biblical theory by the church. Looking critically into the sky at night could brand you a heretic. 

Luckily for Tycho, he had a patron and protector. A year prior to the supernova he approached King Frederick II of Denmark to fund an observatory. Frederick not only funded the observatory, he gave Tycho the isle of Hven, near Copenhagen, to build it on.   

Hven Observatory

Brahe laboured away, inventing new instruments to unravel the mysteries of the universe – one presumes by day. When night set in he parsed the heavens with these instruments, assisted in his work by his sister. If I knew more about maths I could explain his many discoveries – and might be capable of winning a maths duel – I can’t. I can say he fixed many of Copernicus’ errors, and discovered several comets. His work would influence others like Johannes Kepler and help destroy many of the bad Aristotelian theories the Catholic Church insisted were sacrosanct. 

Oh, and I should probably mention now, cause I have no idea how else to shoehorn this in –

as a youngster living in uncle Jorgen’s castle, Tycho had a pet moose. 

Some people state the animal was an elk, but all agree the animal was big, friendly and handsome, with impressive antlers. It followed young Tycho around just like a puppy. The moose was something of a dipsomaniac – being especially fond of local beer – and was regularly drunk. One night the poor animal was three sheets to the wind, and trying to negotiate a grand staircase. It lost it’s footing and took a tumble. Tycho’s beloved childhood friend had to be put down.    

Back to Hven and the observatory. In 1588 King Frederick II died, leaving his eleven year old son king in name only. For a while the true power behind the throne was one Christoffer Valkendorff. You may remember Christoffer as the cheapskate who under-equipped the fleet carrying Anne of Denmark to her husband, King James VI of Scotland in 1589. His cutting of corners was thought a contributing factor to Anne’s fleet nearly sinking in rough seas. Valkendorff avoided punishment by blaming a coven of witches for the near disaster. This in turn kicked off a witch hunting craze in Scotland, and later England which saw thousands of people executed. Where Frederick saw Brahe as a scientist, Valkendorff saw him as a dangerous heretic.   

He’d only just published a book on his comets. His book on the supernova was close to completion. Brahe was a rising star in the academic world. At home, however, he was increasingly isolated. The crown wanted nothing more to do with him. Factions within the church plotted to strip the nobleman of his estates (Uncle Jorgen had by then died leading a naval battle against Sweden, leaving Tycho his title and fortune). More worryingly, locals worried he was practicing witchcraft on the island and began sharpening their pitch forks in preparation for a lynching. With calls to try him for heresy increasing, and an angry mob actually showing up at a house of his in Copenhagen, Tycho packed up his worldly possessions and left for the continent in 1597. He stayed with friends, and continued to examine the sky – and by 1599 had come under the patronage of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. He settled in Prague, Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) and worked with people like Johannes Kepler to increase our understanding of the universe. 

A Supernova

I needs must mention his passing, it has become part of the legend of the man. On 13 October 1601, Tycho attended a royal banquet. He came down with a mystery illness that night, and died thirteen days later. One theory on his death was he had been poisoned, either by Kepler (who wanted to keep Brahe’s expensive sky measuring equipment – or by King Christian IV of Denmark.  The boy king was now in his early 20s, and bore great animosity towards Tycho, as he believed the astronomer had carried on an affair with his mother before his father’s passing. Subsequent exhumations have disproved the poison hypothesis. 

Kepler himself offers a clue. During the proceedings Tycho desperately needed to relieve himself, but dared not duck out to use the rest rooms in case if offended the Emperor. He held on till the night’s end, then found he could not relieve himself, no matter how hard he tried. It’s generally believed he died of infection following a burst bladder. 

In his final days he penned his own epitaph “He lived like a sage and died like a fool”. Though true I guess, I, for one, believe his life was one far too colourful, eccentric, groundbreaking and downright surreal to encapsulate him thus. 

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