Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

I Am Not Making This Up: Tycho Brahe – The Math Guy With The Nose (and The Drunken Moose)

Written By: Tracy - Nov• 14•16

Mind you, moose bites can be nasty.

Math is not my forte. I’m more of a writing gal. But my interest in the hard sciences might have been bigger (or there at all) if I had known about rock stars like astronomer Tycho Brahe.

Who was Tycho Brahe?

Brahe lived larger than life in his own time, along the way some of his antics would make the Kardishans’s antics seem tame.  

You could say that Brahe didn’t choose the thug life (and by thug life, we mean academic life. So pretty much the opposite of thug life) but you’d be wrong. Tycho had to buck societal expectations to become a scholar.  

In the time where he lived, nobles were supposed to stay out of the sciences to give academics a chance to shine (and stop using their stardom to suck up all that sweet patron money that would otherwise go to more deserving academics). 

And maybe only Fredrick II, the king of Denmark (Tycho’s cousin) was more noble. Tycho was one of 12 kids (eight of which survived to adulthood. Not bad odds for those days). He was one of a set of twins, but his twin brother died shortly after birth. 

They’ll Never Miss One

Tycho’ childless uncle must have seen something in Brahe (or possibly, like H. I. In Raising Arizona, he just saw that his brother’s family had a lot of kids and would never miss one), because he kidnapped little two-year-old Tycho and raised him as his own. (Tycho’s own parents were strangely ok with this.)

Tycho initially studied law, (his kidnapper/uncle wanted him to go into civil service). That changed in 1560 when he was 14 and he witnessed an eclipse that had been scientifically predicted. Tycho thought that predicting an event like this was audacious, but when the prediction came true it lit a spark in him to study astronomy. (Given his later life, Tycho would know from audacious.) 

Like Batman with a secret identity, little Tycho studied law by day and astronomy at night. In 1563 he made his first recorded observation: a conjunction (when heavenly bodies line up, like “the Great Conjunction” in “The Dark Crystal.”) of Jupiter and Saturn. When Tycho consulted his books, he found that they were all inaccurate (a nice way of saying wrong) about when the conjunction should occur.

At this point, Tycho said: forget paper pushing! Imma fix this! He then devoted his life to collecting astronomical instruments, making observations and correcting existing observations.  

The Thing With The Nose

One would think that devoting yourself to a life of scholarly pursuits means that you would live a quiet life. In the case of Tycho, you’d be wrong. In 1566 while at a wedding dance of one of his professors, Tycho got into an argument with fellow student, (Also a nobleman. Also, also his third cousin.) Manderup Parsberg over a mathematical point.  

The two of them decided to settle the argument with a duel.

At night.

It didn’t go well for Tycho. He lost part of his nose and got a scar on his forehead. For the rest of his life he wore a prosthetic nose. Stories say that it was made of silver or gold, but when Tycho’s body was exhumed in 2010, scientists determined that his everyday nose was made of brass (though he might have had a fancy dress nose made of precious metals and jewels). 

Tycho must not have held the loss of his nose against Parsberg, because the two men eventually became good friends. 

The Matter Of Family

The remainder of Tycho’s life would be a balance between seeking funding and providing for his family. The problem was that he fell in love with a member of the common classes (Kirsten Jørgensdatter, the daughter of a Lutheran minister). Under Danish law, if they married he would lose his status. 

The two had a morganatic marriage, which was similar to a common law marriage. This allowed Tycho to remain a member of the ruling class, but wouldn’t change his wife’s status or allow his children to inherit. (They had eight kids. Six of whom lived to adulthood. Again, good odds for the time.) Because most of Tycho’s family disapproved, they weren’t inclined to help the kids out if Tycho died.

Tycho inherited from his parents and his uncle (who died from pneumonia after saving King Frederick II of Denmark from drowning).  

The King of Denmark, Fredrick II, was also a patron of Tycho’s. At one point Tycho controlled about 1% of all the wealth in Denmark. This included his own island estate, complete with castle. Here he would build two observatories and a research institute.

He also used the island estate to build several industries, including a paper mill to print and distribute his scientific findings. 

But life wasn’t all sober scientific inquiry for Tycho and his family. He spent part of his fortune employing a little person psychic named Jepp. Because: why not?

Jepp functioned as a court jester. During meals, his job was to sit under the table, and talk “incessantly” while Tycho threw him table scraps.

The Drunk Moose

Tycho also kept a pet moose (in some accounts, an elk). In a letter to his mentor, Landgrave Willhelm of Hesse-Kassel, Tycho wrote about his pet moose.

His pet moose. 

The moose lived in the castle, trotted along beside Tycho’s carriage like a dog and liked to drink Danish beer. 

Willhelm responded by asking to trade Tycho the moose for a horse. To which Tycho replied that sadly, the moose died. The astronomer had loaned it out to a nobleman in Landskrona for a party. During the party, the moose got wasted, fell down some stairs and died. 

I don’t know whether to blame this on eccentric nobles or eccentric scientists.

Through his court contacts, Tycho got King Frederick II to agree to allow his heirs to inherit his property. Unfortunately Tycho outlived his king. The King’s son, Christian IV didn’t support the sciences the way his father had.  

Tycho gradually lost favor at court and entered exile. Two years later Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor offered patronage to Tycho, which prompted him to move his household to Prague. 

The move worked out well for Tycho’s family. For the first time they were treated like nobility, and after Tycho’s death they were allowed to inherit his property. 

In Prague Tycho collaborated with the not-yet-famous Johannes Kepler. Despite this, Tycho kept most of his research to himself. Over the years he’d had students and assistants try to steal his work and pass it off as their own.  

His fears weren’t unfounded. Part of why we know Kepler’s name is that after Tycho’s death, Kepler (by his own admission) stole Tycho’s notes and built on them for his own groundbreaking work. Kepler wouldn’t have had access to those notes if not for Tycho’s death.

His Weird Death

Tycho’s death was just as memorable as his nose and the drunk Moose. In 1601 he attended a banquet in Prague. During the banquet he refused to get up to go to the bathroom because he didn’t want to be rude. So instead he very politely contracted a bladder infection that prevented him from urinating, and died of a ruptured bladder. 

In 1901, scientists exhumed Tycho’s remains. They found high levels of mercury, which led to rumors that Tycho might have been poisoned. Suspects included cohorts of Christian IV (to cover up an alleged affair between Tycho and the Dowager Queen of Denmark) and Kepler (for access to Tycho’s notes).

In 2010 Tycho was re exhumed and scientists found that there wasn’t enough mercury (or any poison) to have killed him. The mercury, they concluded, could have come from alchemy experiments. This . . Er . . . Buried the murder theories.


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