Six Characters in Search of a Blogger


10.5 Tycho Brahe: Great Thinker, Great Drinker
January 16, 2009, 4:45 pm
Filed under: People Looking at the Stars | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Thanks to this week’s Special Guest Author, Iain B.  (my husband)

Tycho Brahe

Tycho Brahe

OK, so 16th Century astronomer Tycho Brahe isn’t exactly a contemporary character – he predates Galileo by at least 50 years or so and is much less well known. But he was an interesting chap all the same, and led quite a colorful life.

For example, not only did he get drunk and belligerent enough during his college Christmas party to challenge another student to a fight (I’m sure we’ve all been there, done that); but he actually refused to back down in the cold light of sobriety.  He went through with the sword duel, in which he lost both the challenge and his nose (his challenger, quite literally, having cut off his nose to spite his face.)

Undaunted, Brahe just got himself a new one.  Depending on whose account you believe, he had a prosthetic nose made out of silver, gold or copper.  But this rather unorthodox facial bling doesn’t seem to have done his reputation or his status in society much harm, because he was soon wining and dining with the royalty of Denmark (which included much of Scandanavia at the time) and lightening their purses in the process.

Brahe follows in the footsteps of ancient civilisations such as the Egyptian pharaohs, in managing to do something which is almost impossible today: he persuaded the government of Denmark to contribute  a significant percentage of the country’s assets (1% of the GDP) towards a science project.  Whereas previous civilizations had invested their resources into building pyramids to make their permanent place in history (although it has to be said that the Mayans in particular were excellent astronomers too), for Brahe his legacy was to be the building of the first modern observatory.  (As a comparison to more recent US history, the entire Apollo moon program was about 0.4% of US GDP at its 1969 peak.  So for any country to dedicate 1% of GDP is a huge investment, especially for a project which provides no real tangible results to the economy.)

Unfortunately for Brahe, the telescope had not yet been invented, but he still managed to lay the foundations of modern astronomical science by the observations he made through careful triangulation of the planets during the year.  As just one example, he validated most of the Copernican model of the solar system (i.e., with our sun at the center of certain planetary orbits) although he still put Earth as an exception to that rule (more for religious than scientific reasons–Galileo was to discover the perils of heliocentrism vis-à-vis the Church some years later.)  I won’t bore you with the details, but be assured that Brahe “did the math” and proved the orbits of the planets to a very accurate degree.  Not surprisingly, many students from the European Continent came to Brahe for instruction in astronomy.

He was also known for being an eccentric host.  Often throwing parties in his family seat, Knutstorp Castle, Brahe had in residence two rather unique members of his household that doubled as entertainment.  First, he had in his employ a little person/dwarf by the name of Jepp, who was his jester and believed by Brahe to be clairvoyant; apparently, Jepp would sit beneath the table during dinner parties, from whence Brahe would bring him out to make pronouncements and predictions for his guests.  In addition, Brahe was also famous for owning a pet moose.  (Which stayed in the house with him.) Unfortunately, after indulging in too much ale one night, the said moose fell down the stairs of Brahe’s castle, broke a leg, and ultimately died.

But what may well be the lasting thing to remember about Brahe–beyond his prosthetic nose and the alcoholic tendencies he and his pet moose shared–was that he proved that high-tech equipment isn’t always necessary to make solid contributions to science.  That tradition continues even today, as amateur astronomers are making some of the most prolific contributions to new minor planet and asteroid discoveries.

In the end, though, the booze was Brahe’s downfall–at least partly.  The legend is that, not wanting to offend the royal court during a banquet, he delayed leaving the king’s table for several hours, the result being a bladder infection.  The king’s apothecaries treated him with a compound containing mercury, and rather than cure his ills it finished him off.  (So he went down drinking.  There are worse ways to go.)

So here’s to Tycho Brahe : great thinker, great drinker.  Not a bad epitaph I’d say.

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