Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Death of Tycho Brahe

Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe was, like many astronomers of the 16th Century, a prodigious dreamer; at a time when so little was understood of the mechanics of the sky, it took a man of two minds - one philosophical, the other analytical - to unite the physics and mythology of the skies into a unified whole.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketBorn in December 1546, Tycho was just such a man. Alongside contemporaries such as Johannes Kepler (whose own work was a continuation of his), Tycho made observations which formed the basis of astronomy for decades, if not centuries. Despite this, he was never a believer in heliocentrism, which caused some friction between himself and Kepler; Tycho believed that the Sun orbited the Earth, while the other planets orbited the Sun.

The long-standing myth surrounding Brahe's final days is that he died of a bladder infection; because it would have been impolite for him to leave a banquet he was attending before it was over, even to relieve himself, he stayed and was said to have strained himself, dying 11 days later. Subsequent analysis of hair from his remains, however, detected massive quantities of mercury.

Since like most scientific men of his day, Tycho was also a keen alchemist, it's unlikely that he would have taken such massive quantities of it himself, even though mercuric chloride was a staple ingredient in much of that era's medicine. Modern fingers tend to point to poisoning, and to Kepler as the poisoner; Kepler had the means, motive, opportunity, and not only stole much of Tycho's research following his mentor's death but worked at submerging Tycho's reputation for generations to come as well.

Tycho Brahe is buried in the Church of Our Lady in front of Týn, in Prague, near the Old Town Square.
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