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Tycho Brahe
03.22.2013 953840117351

"May I not seemed to have lived in vain."


At the time of his death in 1601, the Danish astronomer, mathematician, and alchemist Tycho Brahe was the most respected scientist in the world.  He had devoted his life to the intense study of the stars, observed the passage of hundreds of celestial bodies through the cosmos, coined the word nova (as in supernova), definitively disproved Aristotle's theory of an unchanging celestial realm, and laid the groundwork for what would eventually become Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion.

He also had most of his nose chopped off by a broadsword during a duel with a rival mathematician, lived on his own private island in a massive castle complete with trap doors, and army of astronomer henchmen, and a dungeon where he could extrajudicially imprison anyone who pissed him off whenever he wanted, had a pet moose that got drunk at parties, was best friends with a psychic dwarf who lived under his dining room table, and accurately predicted the cosmic trajectories of over seven hundred stars despite the fact that he was performing his observations with his naked eye because he was working before the invention of the telescope.

So if you think semi-insane, self-aggrandizing evil geniuses are pretty much the most totally friggin' sweet thing ever, let me introduce you to Tycho Brahe and his similarly-insane out-of-control 'stache, because this psychotic ultragenius Dane was basically the 16th-century equivalent of Dr. Julius No, only instead of atomic robot hands and bikini-clad Ursula Andresses, Brahe had one of those sweet ruffley Shakepearean neck doilies, a wall-mounted quadrant the size of a Disneyland roller coaster, and at least one drunken moose falling down the stairs of his subterranean observatory.

 

 

Born to prominent Danish nobility in 1546, when Tycho was two years old he was kidnapped by his childless uncle – another wealthy aristocrat and a man who would eventually became famous for drunkenly diving into the Baltic Sea to save the life of the King of Denmark.  Tycho's uncle and dad somehow made peace with the whole child abduction thing, Tycho was raised by the uncle, and when he turned 13 he went off to Doogie Houser it up, first at the University of Copenhagen, then at the University of Leipzig.  As a good member of the aristocracy, Brahe was supposed to study law and war and how to do other good princely things like tax the balls off of the peasantry and then blow them up with cannons, but instead he got caught up in a crazy misguided love of astronomy and mathematics and other complicated things.  He bought all the major astronomy books of the time, reading up on Ptolemy, Aristotle, and Copernicus, but in 1563 when he used his own instruments to observe Saturn and Jupiter passing in front of each other, he was slightly pissed off when he noticed this high-altitude celestial high-five had gone down a couple weeks before the Ptolemaic and Copernican tables had predicted it would.  After observing this, Brahe naturally came to the realization that these guys were a bunch of fraudulent jackasses, and figured he could do a much better job than any of those jokers when it came to predicting the movement of the cosmos.  So that's what he set out to do.

This is what I love about Tycho.  Like any good megalomaniac, this guy was utterly convinced that nobody was as smart as him, and anyone who doubted him would RUE THE DAY THEY CROSSED HIM MUAHAHAHAHA.  Here's a good example of that:  One time, Tycho and some other math geeks were at a wedding reception in this huge castle in Germany when suddenly a huge argument broke out between Tycho and some other asshole about who was better at math.  Tycho, in a psychotic fit of uncontrollable nerd rage, drew his broadsword in the middle of the dining hall, chased the other dude outside while loudly screaming about trigonometric functions, and then proceeded to drunkenly swordfight his rival mathematician in the light of the full moon outside a 16th-century Teutonic castle while the assembled wedding guests stood around in a circle chanting "Fight! Fight! Fight!".  This, of course, is totally awesome.

 

 

Unfortunately for Tycho, his brainpower was slightly better than his sword arm, and a lucky swing from his rival struck Brahe in the bridge of his nose and lopped pretty much the entire thing off.  Tycho, never one to let something like being horribly disfigured slow him down, went out and constructed a fake metal nose out of gold, silver, and brass alloys, then developed a special wax ointment to keep it attached to his face.

From this point on, Tycho Brahe had a metal fucking nose.  I think we can all hopefully agree that this is totally rad. 

While we don't know much of the details surrounding what this thing looked like (the men that would paint his portrait in later years would be incredibly kind in how they portrayed his hardcore-awesome Terminator steel nose), we can get a little bit of an idea from this etching:

 

 

Brahe returned to Denmark in 1570, disappointed his family by not becoming some boring court administrator, and then went to work building the most insanely-badass observatory ever created.  He ordered the construction of a 20-foot-tall wooden quadrant that took 20 men to assemble, and build 6-foot sextants with brass hinges, scales calibrated to the sixtieth of a degree, and a table for performing troubleshooting corrections on the fly.  Using these tools, the 28-year-old Tycho Brahe was one of the first people to see a supernova in 1572, when he used his naked eye to discover a "new star" somewhere in the Cassiopeia constellation that was actually a goddamned STAR DETONATING IN A MASSIVE GALAXY-SPANNING THERMONUCLEAR FUSION DETONATION (his term for this phenomenon, "nova stella", meaning "new star", is the origin of the terms "nova", "supernova", and 1971 Chevy Nova)

Now, witnessing a supernova or a comet (which Brahe also observed in 1577) was a big deal, because before Tycho Brahe the scientific world believed two things – first, that the universe revolved around the Earth (Copernicus had tried to disprove this a few years ago, claiming that everything revolved around the sun, but people weren't quite convinced yet), and second, that the stars never changed and that everything beyond the Moon stayed constant forever.  Brahe's observations – and the data he gathered to back it up – blew apart Aristotle's theories and disproved roughly two thousand years of scientific thinking.

 

 

After spending a couple years giving lectures at the University of Copenhagen – not because he wanted to, but because the KING OF DENMARK ordered him to – Tycho accepted an offer from the King to build the most insanely-badass observatory the world had ever seen.  He was given a three-mile-wide island  off the coast of Copenhagen as his own private fiefdom, and immediately went to work building Uraniborg, the "Castle of Urania".  Featuring six towers, two libraries, a mad scientist alchemy laboratory, and 250-foot-tall red brick walls, one of which had a quadrant mounted on it that spanned the entire height of the wall, Tycho packed his island fortress lair with hundreds of crazy new astronomical devices he designed, built, and calibrated himself by hand.  He had his own alchemical medicinal herb garden, a printing press, the most accurate globe on the planet, a dormitory housing for his massive staff of astronomers, cooks, and servants, and an ultramax subterranean dungeon complete with torture devices, steel bars, and chains.  Next to the castle itself he constructed a subterranean observatory known as Stjerneborg, meaning "Star Castle", where he kept any measuring tools that could have been thrown out of whack by the wind.

 

Uraniborg Castle.

 

From his island lair, Tycho was basically a mad scientist evil genius commanding an army of henchmen intent on measuring the stars.  His castle was full of secret passages that could only be accessed by turning hidden mechanisms (i.e. "put the candle back!"), all of his team's measurements were kept under lock-and-key in his private study, and any time one of his astronomy nerds would cross him Brahe would have that jackass and his entire family bound up in chains and thrown into his personal dungeon without a trial and without any regard for the law of Denmark or the King himself.  While his teams worked away collecting data, this hard-drinking, hard-fighting , tenured astronomer would throw huge parties, highlighted by the soothsayings of Brahe's personal psychic dwarf jester named Jeppe (who lived under the dining room table and only popped out to make prophecies) and an 800-pound domesticated moose who would get drunk and run madly through the halls of Uraniborg doing moosely things (the moose eventually died when it got hammered on a shit-ton of beer and fell down the stairs).

 

 

Using the most accurate instrumentation the world had ever seen – instruments Brahe had invented himself – the astronomers at Uraniborg were able to track the orbits and positions of 777 celestial bodies.  Thanks to his painstaking detail, and his understanding that he would need to correct his readings for atmospheric refraction (i.e. that the Earth's atmosphere changes the trajectory of incoming light) we now know that some of Brahe's readings were accurate to one-half of an arc minute... which is a big fucking deal considering that he was doing this in 1570, at a time when we didn't know there were any planets in our solar system beyond Saturn.  He was measuring this shit using his naked eye at a time when tangent, cosing and sine hadn't been defined yet, the slide rule was 50 years away from being developed, North America wasn't even being scouted for colonies.  I mean, the fucking TELESCOPE wasn't even invented until 7 years after Tycho's death, but this guy was still tracking the position and movement of damned celestial bodies millions of light years away – and he was doing it with only slightly less accuracy than modern-day NASA technicians.

 

 

Denmark got a new king in 1597, a warlike asskicker who wasn't particularly interested in this fruity science crap, and Tycho was forced to abandon Uraniborg and "get a real job".  He traveled Europe for a couple years, eventually settling in Prague in 1599 where he served as the Imperial Mathematician (an awesome title, by the way) for Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II.  Tycho lived in a really sweet castle outside Prague, and continued to impregnate his common-law peasant wife (they had eight kids together, none of which were legitimate because he was a noble and she was a peasant), but the greatest astronomer of his day eventually died in 1601 from partying too hard – he got really hammered at a party, held his pee too long, and died of a bladder infection.  Which is weird.  His work was continued by his top assistant, a dude named Johannes Kepler, who used Tycho's observations and equipment (coupled with the invention of a new device known as the telescope) to create Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion – one of the fundamental tenets of modern astronomy.

Nowadays Tycho is best known either as a crater on the Moon, that guy from Penny Arcade, or the basis for my friend Scott's Shakespearean assassination story The Astrologer.

 

 

 

Links:

The Galileo Project

University of Virginia Physics

Space.com Bio

History of Mathematics Bio

Wikipedia

 

Sources:

Kusky, Timothy M. and Katherine E. Cullen.  Encyclopedia of earth and Space Science.  Infobase, 2010.

Nardo, Don.  Tycho Brahe: Pioneer of Astronomy.  Capstone, 2008.

Thoren, Victor E.  The Lord of Uraniborg.  Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990.



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