Friday, 14 December 2012

Tycho Brahe

Here's some thoughts on the occasion of the birthday of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, born at Knutstrup, his family's ancestral castle, in Scania. (1546) Scania is now part of Sweden.

  When he was 12, he began studying law at the University of Copenhagen. Might the progression of modern children through education by age rather than aptitude be due for review? There is news today of the wildfire spread of MOOC - distance learning for a degree.

Eventually, Brahe became interested in astronomy after a solar eclipse in 1560. In 1572, he witnessed a supernova in the constellation Cassiopeia. He thought he was seeing the birth of a new star, although it was actually the death of one. My thought - in nature how often a frantic flowering foretells an end, not a beginning. Think beech mast (the phenomenon whereby a tree puts forth a massive quantity of fruits before it dies).
With the publication of his book De nova stella (1573), he went from being a dabbler to a respected astronomer. He conducted rigorous observations of the heavens, night after night, and he was the last major astronomer to do so without the use of a telescope. Eventually, he took on an assistant by the name of Johannes Kepler, who eventually became the guardian of all of Brahe's closely guarded measurements.
In 1601, Brahe attended a formal banquet where the drink flowed freely. Even though his bladder was full, he refused to leave the table to relieve himself, because it would have been a breach of etiquette. He developed a painful urinary infection and died 11 days later. So: a genius effectively died of embarassment.  It was long thought that the infection caused acute kidney failure, but recent analysis of his hair samples showed an extremely high concentration of mercury in Brahe's body. Scientists believe he probably consumed a large quantity of the metal a day before he died -- possibly as part of some kind of remedy for his infection. What he thought would cure him, killed him.

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