Monday, December 15, 2014

Tyco Brahe: Who says Scientists are Boring?

An entertaining portrait of "history's strangest astronomer".
Still, his life seems almost dry and tedious compared to his mysterious death. He died of a sudden bladder disease in 1601 while at a banquet in Prague. He was unable to urinate except in the smallest of quantities, and after eleven days of excruciating agony he finally died. At least, that's the official story. It's possible he actually succumbed to mercury poisoning, as later researchers have detected toxic quantities of the substance on his mustache hairs. 
In order to shed some more light on this, his remains were recently exhumed for further medical study. Assuming the researchers find more evidence of mercury on his bone and hair samples, there are two possibilities. If there's evidence of longer-term exposure, then he likely ingested the mercury accidentally during the course of his experiments. If, on the other hand, the mercury can only be found right at the roots of his hair, then that would indicate he was given one big fatal dose of mercury. And that means...murder!
I am not sure how much to drama has been added in the article, though. I thought Tyco Brahe died a bizarre, but less malicious, death as echoed in the wikipedia entry:
Tycho suddenly contracted a bladder or kidney ailment after attending a banquet in Prague, and died eleven days later, on 24 October 1601. According to Kepler's first hand account, Tycho had refused to leave the banquet to relieve himself because it would have been a breach of etiquette.
The same entry entertains, but quickly dismisses, the mercury poisoning story, by suggesting that the mercury could have come from the metal noses he wore.

Further down,
In life, Brahe had jealously guarded his data, not even letting his prized pupil Johannes Kepler gain access.

That all changed upon his death, as Kepler took advantage of the confusion to take possession of the data, something he himself later admitted was not entirely ethical:

"I confess that when Tycho died, I quickly took advantage of the absence, or lack of circumspection, of the heirs, by taking the observations under my care, or perhaps usurping them." 
With that data in hand, Kepler was able to move astronomy further forward than anyone before him, becoming what Carl Sagan would later call "the first astrophysicist and the last scientific astrologer."

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