The first time I heard about astronomer Tycho Brahe’s extravagant life was on comedian Dan Telfer’s album “Tendrils of Ruin.” Telfer covers the gamut of Brahe’s eccentricities: an enslaved psychic jester named Jepp, a pet elk that got drunk and died falling down a set of stairs, and of course, a mathematical sword duel resulting in the loss of Brahe’s nose… which was later replaced by a gold prosthetic.
Brahe’s unusual lifestyle appeals to us because from our modern vantage point it’s comical, like the ridiculous characters we follow on reality television. Actually being around him when he charged into math battle or refused to urinate probably wasn’t all that charming. However, despite his idiosyncrasies, Brahe’s persistence and inventions changed how we understand the world. For a moment, let’s ignore his screwball antics and take a closer look at what made him a genius.
Brahe’s observations in astronomy were crucial in establishing something we all accept as a common sense, outer space can change. Brahe noted the existence of a new star and a comet, explaining that both were “above” the moon. Up until then, most assumed that “the heavens” were immutable. But Brahe showed that astral bodies could not only move, but fade from existence.
While this was an amazing revelation, it was probably a sobering one as well, even for someone as brash as Brahe. Convincing Danish King Frederick II that further scientific knowledge was important to the future of Denmark and Norway, Brahe was awarded the island of Hven and the funding to build his own observatory.
Called “Uraniborg,” Tycho’s lab doubled as his home. He designed everything from the geometric layout of the garden, to a great mural quadrant designed to measure the arc height above the horizon. He eventually built a second observatory on Hven called “Stjerneborg.” This was partially underground to protect his instruments from gusts of wind. The island also housed a paper mill and printing facility so Brahe could closely oversee the production of his books. You can visit Hven today and see Brahe’s legacy still there. Sounds like a great vacation to me!
Brahe also designed and calibrated his own observational instruments. This was important since unlike other astronomers Brahe watched planetary bodies move through their orbits, not just in static position. Subsequently he discovered orbital anomalies that others had never noticed.
After his patron king died, Brahe had a falling out with Frederick’s son King Christian IV. He left Denmark and Uraniborg behind, settling in Prague until he died. For years there was speculation that Brahe had been murdered by mercury poisoning, but Dr. Jens Vellev dismissed this idea in 2012 after examining Brahe’s exhumed body.