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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

By a Nose- The Bizzare Astronomer Tycho Brahe

     Many people would recognize the names Galileo and Copernicus, but many people would struggle to place the name Tycho Brahe if mentioned. Indeed while obscure now, during his life, Tycho Brahe was a superstar in the world of astronomy. From the 16th through the early 18th century there was a hot debate on the cosmological makeup of the known universe. Since the time of Alexander the Great the universe was firmly believed to be based on the geocentric model. Indeed via observation it did appear the earth was fixed and all the heavenly celestial bodies revolved around it. Some four centuries later, a Greek mathematician named Ptolemy built a functioning model of this system to account for the retrograde movement of planets. This system was embraced by the Christian church as there were multiple passages in the bible that seemed to back up the geocentric model(Joshua 10:13 especially). Over the next 1,300 years the Ptolemaic/Aristotelian system became dogma.

     Copernicus was famous for his posthumously published 1543 book "On the Revelation of the Celestial Spheres" threw a wrench into the certainty of the ancient Greek system. Simply put the math and models needed to make the old geocentric Greek system work were severely complicated while the Copernican model made things much simpler. It attracted defenders as well as enemies as it stirred debate. One man, thought he had an answer to it all, and he was Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe.

     Tycho Brahe was two generations down the road from Copernicus. But he thought he could combine the Copernican model with the Aristotelian model to solve all arguments. The "Tychonic System" still had the earth in the center with the moon orbiting it. Along another orbit there was the sun, and the rest of the planets orbited the sun as it in turn revolved around the earth. Tycho believed this better explained the retrograde movement of planets and at the same time did not violate and dogmatic or philosophical beliefs of the day. But aside from coming up with his own system, he was indeed a weird character.

     First of all Tycho is most often pictured with a shiny nose...not because he had oily skin,but because he wore a metal prosthesis. In 1566 Tycho had a series of arguments over a mathematical formula with his cousin who was also a mathematician. Neither was able to definitively prove the other person's position to be in error so they solved their argument in the customary way of the day...with a duel. During the duel, which was fought with swords and in the dark, Tycho had roughly 1/2 of his nose removed. For the rest of his life he wore a series of flashy metal noses made from silver, gold, copper, and brass. Indeed when his body was exhumed in this century(more on why later), there was green coloration on the bones showing he was buried with a copper or brass nose. 

    Why was he dug up? Well he has been dug up a few times actually. And it all revolves around his bizarre death. He fell ill after a banquet and died several days later. Rumors were he made enemies with the king for sleeping with the king's mother. He also the type of person that was not well liked in general. His personal wealth was vast (up to 1% of his Denmark's economy some estimates say) and he used his money and influence to get his way. It turns out that what killed him was more than likely his stubbornness. While at the banquet, he acted as many did in those days, and gorged himself on wine and food. But not one to break etiquette and look bad he refused to excuse himself to relieve his wine filled bladder. This resulted in either a ruptured bladder or kidney failure from the examination of his remains in 2010. He was not poisoned by the king or by his angry apprentice (The great Johannes Kepler).

    Now I bet you might have heard of Kepler. Indeed he did work for Tycho and helped Tycho catalog a the greatest collection of celestial observations at that time. On his deathbed Tycho asked Kepler to promise to use that data to prove his system correct. Kepler, after years of laboring under Tycho's heavy hand had grown resentful and later used all that data to prove the Copernican model correct and compose the laws for planetary motion we still study today.

The Moral of the Story- When nature calls...answer. Oh and don't settle a debate on mathematical theory by sword fighting in the dark. You may win...but just by a nose.

  
Tycho Brahe-Depicted with fake nose

The Greek model with the earth at the center and the planets, moon, and sun revolving around them. Notice the Sun was the 4th object out from the earth.

The Copernican or sun centered model we would recognize today.

The Tychonic System- The ultimate compromise between Copernicus and Ptolemy. Notice the earth at the center with the moon in orbit around it. Outward from the the sun revolves around the earth while the rest of the planets orbit the sun. The outer ring is the stars which were not thought to be other suns at the time. In fact the one man who proposed stars were far away suns was burnt at the stake for that idea around 1600.

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