Justin Cremer

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Digging up the truth on astronomer Tycho Brahe’s death

In November 2011, scientists took the first step in an attempt to finally lay to rest the rumours surrounding Tycho Brahe’s death

Originally published in The Copenhagen Post - Vol 13, Issue 46

Some mysteries refuse to remain buried. On Monday, Danish scientists reopened the grave of the astronomer Tycho Brahe, dead now for over 400 years.

Why dig up a long-dead body from a Prague grave? The answer is one that Danes might find hard to accept. But before we come to this rather gruesome exercise of modern science, we have to go back to the beginning.

Born Tyge Ottesen Brahe in 1546, he lived what could only be described as an interesting life. A product of Danish nobility, he adopted the latinised name of Tycho Brahe at the age of 15. Five years later, he lost part of his nose in a duel with another student, and would spend the rest of his life with a metal plate over the missing part.

Brahe was an astronomer, an alchemist, and one of the brightest scientific minds of the Renaissance. In 1572, he detected a new star in the constellation Cassiopeia, a shocking discovery at the time, given the prevailing notion that the heavens were perfect and unchanging. The following year, he became the first person to describe a supernova.

In 1576, King Frederik II gave Brahe the island of Ven in the Øresund Strait, where the astronomer built an elaborate castle that he named Uraniborg in honour of Urania, the Greek muse of astronomy. Here, Brahe built observatories and increasingly complex astronomical instruments and established Uraniborg as the best observatory in the whole of Europe.

Outside of his scientific contributions, he was, according to the physicist Herbert Dingle, an “indestructible blustering social being with an enormous appetite for food and wine”. Brahe also had an apparent appetite for a particular married woman – Queen Sophia, with whom Brahe is believed to have had a love affair and may have laid his own death trap.

When Sophia’s son, Christian IV, assumed the Danish throne following the death of King Frederik II, he was determined to exact revenge on the man suspected of invading his father’s marital bed. The young king deprived Brahe of his property and ordered Uraniborg to be torn down. The astronomer fled to Germany, never to return to Danish soil.

Brahe sought refuge in Prague, and at a dinner party there in October 1601, fell ill and died eleven days later. The cause of death was written up to a urinary infection, but almost immediately rumours of something more sinister began to swirl.

Suspicion that Brahe may have been murdered has persisted through the centuries, with some supposing the evil deed was committed by Brahe’s scientific rival Johannes Kepler. Other theories suggest Brahe may have accidently killed himself while dabbling in alchemy.

In 1991, Czech scientists removed hairs from the scientist’s moustache at the Prague National Museum and sent them to Denmark for testing. Results revealed a high concentration of mercury, and theories of foul play were reignited.

Among those who subscribe to the belief that Brahe was murdered is the Danish professor Peter Andersen, who works at the University of Strasbourg in France and is a leading expert on Denmark’s Renaissance period. Andersen’s theory behind Brahe’s death is one his countrymen may not want to hear – namely, that none other than Christian IV, the most beloved king to ever wear the Danish crown, was the mastermind behind the calculated murder of  the country’s most revered scientist.

In Andersen’s version of the events, a close assistant of Christian IV arranged for Erik Brahe, a Swedish count and distant relative of the scientist, to poison the astronomer at the king’s behest.  Andersen was able to obtain Erik Brahe’s personal diary and revealed its contents in 2008, claiming it laid out the details of the attack.

“I have described all the details about the murder,” Andersen said in a correspondence with The Copenhagen Post. “However, for political reasons, the smallest Scandinavian monarchy is still refusing to face the truth, pretending to ignore irrefutable evidence about the king’s personal responsibility for the astronomer’s sudden death.”

While Denmark has responded to Andersen’s claims with what he calls “sepulchral silence”, he hopes that this week’s exhumation will make Danes face up to the hard truth.

According to the Prague Daily Monitor, after removing the remains from Brahe’s tomb on Monday, scientists will study the samples at the anthropological depository of the National Museum of Prague until Friday, before returning the remains to the astronomer’s resting place at Tyn Church. Officials expect that Friday’s reinterment ceremony will be attended by as many as 2,000 people.

As much as Andersen hopes the real cause of Brahe’s death will be revealed to the world, he has suspicions about the real motives behind this week’s exercise.

“The main aim of the … exhumation is to scan the scientist’s body in order to reconstruct him plastically and expose him in Denmark, most likely in the Tycho Brahe Planetarium,” said Andersen. “The astronomer clearly did not die as a Dane and does not belong to Denmark anymore.  My fellow citizens killed him and they do not deserve him.”

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