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Awesome Men Throughout History: Tycho Brahe

If you’re interested in science, you’ve probably heard of 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler, since he came up with the laws of planetary motion and all. But you might not be as familiar with Tycho Brahe, the Danish noble and sixteenth-century astronomer whose findings were the basis for much of Kepler’s work. That alone would be enough to merit inclusion into the Awesome Men Throughout History, but Tycho—like a lot of brilliant men with too much money and possible inbreeding further back in their family history—was also nuts, and he’s about as well known for his eccentricities as he is for his contributions to science.

What he should be well known for are his contributions to mustaches. I mean, look at that thing. He was a cowboy hat away from being Yosemite Sam.

But back to the lecture at hand, as Snoop Dogg would say. Tycho recorded hundreds of painstaking, precise astronomical observations, and was the first to track celestial bodies (aka planets and moons) throughout their entire orbits, instead of just at key points where they were visible from the Earth. His publications on observing the formation of a new star (which he called “nova”) and the movement of a comet established that the universe beyond the moon was not a static one – stuff changed and moved around in it. This was big time stuff for the 1570s, because the Aristotelian belief in an unchanging universe was considered a solid, irrefutable fact, one that scholars and philosophers still believed until Tycho’s findings challenged it.

What’s even more amazing is that he kept track of all this stuff without a telescope, which hadn’t been invented yet. Instead, Tycho built and calibrated custom astronomical equipment to track and chart his findings, which had a major impact on instrumentation in his field.

So that’s Tycho the scientist, albeit a very abbreviated version. Tycho the aristocratic screwball was equally fascinating. For starters, a disagreement with a fellow nobleman over a mathematical formula led to Tycho challenging the man to a duel, which cost Tycho the bridge of his nose. He wore a series of prosthetic noses, some of which were silver and gold, for the rest of his life, predating  HYPERLINK “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cj9_yW8tZxs”Digital Underground member Humpty Hump’s costume by over 400 years.

Tycho was also a wealthy man, rumored to have controlled 1% of the entire wealth of Denmark at one time, and definitely had the rich-guy tendency towards bizarre impulse purchases. He retained a vertically-challenged court jester, who was often charged with dressing like a clown and sitting under the table during Tycho’s lavish dinner parties, just to freak out the guests.

Tycho also had a pet moose that was brought out to entertain guests, and he even took the thing on the road with him. In fact, it died at another nobleman’s house after he and Tycho got it drunk enough to fall down the stairs, whereupon it suffered a fatal injury. Clearly I’m not a nobleman, because I have no idea who you would even call to resolve that kind of problem. You’d probably just have to chainsaw the damn thing like the dead horse in Animal House.

Crazier still was the official account of Tycho’s death; he held in pee for so long at a dinner party (not wanting to appear rude by excusing himself before the host), that he got a nasty bladder infection that turned into uremia and killed him. Other theories suggest that he died from mercury poisoning, which he may have contracted from making all those prosthetic noses. That last part isn’t a joke – forensics experts examining his remains now floated that out as a possibility.

In any case, Tycho Brahe was a pretty cool guy, and modern astronomy owes a lot to him. His name has been kept alive in a couple of ways, though; he has craters on Mars and the moon named after him, as well as one of the two main characters in Penny Arcade. A more thorough tribute might have to wait until false noses come back into fashion, though.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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