Death of Tycho Brahe

By Cavendish, Richard | History Today, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Death of Tycho Brahe


Cavendish, Richard, History Today


October 24th, 1601

In 1901, on the three hundredth anniversary of his death, the bodies of Tycho Brahe and his wife Kirstine were exhumed in Prague. They had been embalmed and were in remarkably good condition, but the astronomer's artificial nose was missing, apparently filched by someone after his death. It had been made for him in gold and silver when his original nose was sliced off in a duel he fought in his youth at Rostock University after a quarrel over some obscure mathematical point. He always carried a small box of glue in his pocket for use when the new nose became wobbly.

Tycho Brahe was famous for the most accurate and precise observations achieved by any astronomer before the invention of the telescope. Born to an aristocratic family in Denmark in 1546, he was one of twin boys -- the other twin was still-born -- and while still a baby Tycho was stolen from his parents by a rich, childless uncle, who paid for his education and sent him to Leipzig University to study law. His imagination had been fired, however, by a total eclipse of the sun in 1560 and he was determined to be an astronomer. He found that the existing tables recording the positions of planets and stars were wildly inaccurate and dedicated himself to correcting them.

After studying at Wittenberg, Rostock, Basel and Augsburg, and inheriting both his uncle's and his father's estates, Tycho set up his own observatory and in 1572 discovered a supernova in the constellation of Cassiopeia where, in the state of knowledge of the time, it had no business to be. …

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