Heroes of Space: Tycho Brahe

Read on to learn more about the peculiar life of the last great naked eye astronomer

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Part of Brahe’s nose was made of Brass after he lost a chunk of it in a sword duel

Part of Brahe’s nose was made of Brass after he lost a chunk of it in a sword duel

Written by Jonathan O’Callaghan

In an age of eccentric astronomers, Tycho Brahe was perhaps the most eccentric of them all. Rumoured to not only have a tamed elk in his residence but also a “psychic dwarf”, Brahe’s life is one of both astronomical genius and bizarre tales. There aren’t many other astronomers who can claim to have lost part of their nose in a duel over a mathematical formula while going on to make some of the most significant observations and discoveries of their time.

Tycho Brahe was born on 14 December 1546 in Skane, Denmark (now Sweden). The eldest son, his life would begin its unusual path when, at the age of two, he was kidnapped from his parents Otte Brahe and Beate Bille by his uncle Jørgen Thygesen Brahe after they had supposedly promised a child to Jørgen and his wife but failed to fulfil the promise.

At the age of 12 in April 1559 Brahe studied law at the University of Copenhagen as per his uncle’s wishes, but he quickly developed a love for astronomy. He soon realised becoming a great astronomer meant spending many nights poring over observational data, and would often his spend his evenings doing just that. His uncle requested he persevere with law, however, so when Brahe was sent on a study tour of Europe in early 1562 he was limited to performing astronomy in his spare time.

One of Brahe’s defining characteristics was that part of his nose was prosthetic, revealed in 2012 to be have been made out of brass. Brahe had lost a small portion of his nose in a duel with Danish nobleman Manderup Parsberg on 29 December 1566 after they disagreed over a mathematical formula. Crossing swords was the only way to resolve their differences, apparently.

Prior to this, in 1565, Brahe’s uncle had died of pneumonia and two years later in 1567 Brahe fully devoted himself to astronomy. With the help of his other uncle, Steen Bille, he built an observatory and alchemical laboratory at Herrevad Abbey in former-Denmark.

Brahe is often regarded as the last great naked eye astronomer as it was not long after his time that Galileo invented the telescope. It was from his observatory that he began making notable discoveries including one on 11 November 1572: a very bright star in the constellation Cassiopeia, now known to be a supernova. His measurements revealed that it must have been very far away, further than the Moon and the planets, challenging the commonly accepted theory that beyond the lunar orbit objects were in a state of antiquity.

Over the next two decades he made more and more significant discoveries from various observatories. He was the first to realise comets were further than the Moon, rather than in the atmosphere than had been believed, and performed some of the most precise observations of the night sky at the time before the arrival of the telescope.

One of his most significant contributions to astronomy, however, actually came after his mysterious death in 1601. Brahe had been hugely protective of his work throughout his life but, with his passing, the astronomer Johannes Kepler was able to use Brahe’s detailed observations of Mars to formulate his now-famous laws of planetary motion. Although Brahe’s death has commonly been attributed to a bladder ailment during a banquet, posthumous studies of his body have suggested foul play may have been at hand, with mercury poisoning a possibility. Some have even suggested his demise may have been at the hands of one who profited so greatly from his death, Kepler himself, but no such theories have ever been proven.

Brahe’s life was certainly an eventful one. Alongside personal drama he made some monumental discoveries and observations in the field of astronomy, and today he is still regarded as one of the most significant astronomers of all time. Perhaps he would find it fitting that one of the Moon’s most notable craters in its southern Earth-facing region is named in his honour.

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