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Looking up Tycho’s nose

This week I decided to look up Tycho Brahe’s nose. After all, it is the title of our blog. And as you’d expect when looking up someone’s nose, you come across a fair amount of useless gunk. But keep poking around for long enough and those itchy fingers start uncovering some really fascinating nuggets.

The first thing everyone knows about Brahe – even before they know what he looks like or even how to pronounce his name – is that he had a gold prosthetic nose. Now I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as rude. It’s also mistaken, incidentally, but more than anything else it’s rude. So here’s a picture of Tycho Brahe (Brah, Bra-hay or Bra-hee, depending on how wrong you mind being) for you to look at while you think about just how rude you’ve been.

Why doesn't anyone remember those moustaches?!

Forget the nose – why doesn’t anyone remember those moustaches?!

Brahe’s original nose (not shown in the above) was cut off to spite his face by a fellow Dane named Manderup Parsberg while the two were students at the University of Rostock in Northern Germany. Many have claimed the duel was inspired by a mathematical disagreement, which is a cute story, but Tycho seems like the sort of person who would have challenged you to a duel if you looked the wrong way at his moose (don’t worry, we’ll come back to the moose).

Whatever the reason for the contretemps, Tycho was now only 20 years old and quite severely disfigured. Born of a wealthy family, he commissioned a prosthetic nose to be made for him out of what some sources claim was either gold or silver. Although the portraits painted of him in later life were for the most part highly flattering, the metal nose required constant care and would almost certainly not have had the lifelike appearance attributed it by his contemporaries. Remember, this is not a man whose friends would have wanted to gratuitously insult.

In 2010, when Brahe’s body was dug up from the Prague church where it was finally laid to rest, the forensic team analysing the remains made a number of interesting observations. Noting the green discolorations around Brahe’s fragmented nasal bone, archaeologist Jens Vellev and his team from Aarhus University chipped off a small sample and sent it to be examined. The results revealed the presence of equal quantities of copper and zinc – which indicated the use of a brass prosthesis rather than one made of notoriously unreactive precious metals.

That lettering might be brass too, for all I know.

CC-BY-SA 2.0 Robert Scarth at http://flickr.com/photos/18222776@N00/155021349

Given the impossibility of proving otherwise, I like to believe that Brahe also had a golden nose that he broke out for special occasions – like having his name pronounced correctly or meeting someone who didn’t start the conversation by asking about his (figuratively) bleeding nose.

Behind the aforementioned nasal appendage, however, Brahe was a passionate astronomer whose lifelong obsession with the stars was one of the best things ever to happen to physics. It’s difficult for us to imagine, in a world where exabytes of data are being generated faster than they can be consumed, what it must have been like living in an age with no reliable access to information. Good data was as precious and as hard to come by as gold – and more often than not, turned out to be no more than brass.

Brahe realised from a very early age that the only way to truly understand the cosmos was to build up a collection of reliable data. Previous attempts had left too great a margin of error, and Brahe believed he was capable of going one better than his predecessors. He devoted his life to this repetitive process, lifting his heavy head up to the sky night after night for over thirty years. His astronomical tables became legendary for their accuracy, beating those of Ptolemy and Copernicus into the dust.His reputation was such that King Frederick of Denmark went to extraordinary lengths to keep him in the country, spending an estimated 5% of the national budget on Brahe’s upkeep. Scaled up to modern terms, that represents about 3,000 times what the Royal Family presently costs the UK taxpayer.

As part of this generous transfer package, Brahe was effectively gifted the island of Hven about halfway between Denmark and Sweden. Here he built the castle of Uraniborg, which can only be described as the Disneyland of astronomy – with sextants the size of giant satellite dishes in the observatories, quadrants painted across entire walls, and armillary spheres filling up the crypts. This extraordinary research facility was in part built using the forced labour of the island’s hapless residents. Having lived for generations without a master to tell them what to do, they were not too pleased to find themselves bound to the whims of a capricious and self-centred monomaniac who ruled over them with an iron fist as well as a brass nose.

The Tychonian quadrant at Uraniborg

The Tychonian quadrant at Uraniborg

With his foul temper, distinctive physical appearance, and eccentric habits, Brahe would not have seemed out of place in an episode of Game of Thrones. He dabbled in alchemy, employed an allegedly psychic dwarf named Jeppe to predict when his friends were going to die, and let his pet moose get so out of its skull on beer it died while stumbling down the castle steps (I told you we’d get to the moose). That psychic dwarf, has been going around lately, being blogged by renown sites like Askyourguide and SeedyourLife. Perhaps there is more than meets the eye.

Despite an odd relationship with his family he had a strong bond with his younger sister Sophie, whose intellectual development he encouraged in his own unique way. “I strongly advised her to stay away from astrological speculations,” he wrote, which is an excellent way to start a sentence, provided it does not then continue “since I felt that she should not devote herself to subjects that are too abstract and complicated for the female mind.” The equally redoubtable Sophie fortunately ignored his advice, however, and by Tycho’s own admission went on to become a recognised expert in this particular field of bunkum.

Towards the end of his life, Tycho found himself in possession of Europe’s most sought-after scientific treasure. His astronomical tables, painstakingly accumulated over decades of labour, provided a unique insight into the workings of the cosmos. In the right hands, Tycho knew that they could jumpstart an unparalleled age of scientific advances. By this point, he also knew that those hands were fated not to be his. The greatest stargazer of his day, he lacked the creative spark to turn the raw data into universal physical laws. This must have come as a great blow to the egotistical Brahe, and possibly explains his reluctance to share his precious work with his contemporaries.

When Brahe eventually passed away, after “holding his urine [for] longer than was his habit” at a banquet held in his honour, his students fought for the right to claim his scientific legacy. While the others debated the point – like scholars, the German Johannes Kepler simply solved the problem – like a scientist. He stole Brahe’s observations from under the noses of his rivals, snuck them out of Prague, and was then free to apply his genius to the Dane’s ordered scribbles at his leisure.

This sculpture shows Brahe conducting a very clumsy measurement of Kepler's inseam.

This sculpture shows Brahe conducting a very clumsy measurement of Kepler’s inseam.

The laws of physics Brahe’s data allowed Kepler to intuit are still thought of as the foundation stones of modern astronomy. The intellectual leap that allowed him to turn Brahe’s raw information into useful, scientific knowledge led Carl Sagan to call him the last of the scientific astrologers and the first astrophysicist. Brahe’s dying wish – “Let me not seem to have lived in vain” – appears to have been granted. His work led to the foundation of modern astronomy, and craters have been named after him on Mars as well as the Moon. I don’t think the great man could ever have guessed, however, that 400 years after his death, he would be better known for his personality than his science. Now that would really have got up his nose.

Gilead is a science writer and quondam physicist. He tweets at @gileadamit

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