Tycho Brahe: History’s Hardest-Partying Scientist
Scientists have a reputation for being buzzkill nerds who get their kicks calling out inaccuracies in sci-fi movies on Twitter, but if you think science and raging are mutually exclusive, you’ve never heard of Tycho Brahe. The hard-drinking, hard-dueling astronomer partied like a rock star while also contributing enough important observations to the field to make any patiently toiling lab rat break their beakers in a jealous tantrum.
Brahe jump-kicked into the world -- and an important Danish family of aristocrats -- in 1546. It was only a solar eclipse and its semi-accurate prediction by scientists that turned him away from a life of useless nobility and to astronomy at 14. As is the way of young rich dudes, he was like, “That’s pretty cool, but I bet I could do better.”
He Lost His Nose in a Duel
When Brahe was 20, he got into a drunken fight with his cousin at a party over who was the better mathematician, and rather than spending decades amassing passive-aggressively displayed awards like normal academics, they decided to settle the matter with a duel. It’s not clear who won, but Brahe’s cousin sliced a good chunk of his nose off, so we’re inclined to say him.
Only the Fanciest Fake Nose
Walking around 16th-century Europe with dueling disfigurements was the equivalent of a well-worn leather jacket, but Brahe wasn’t into it, so he commissioned a fake nose made of silver and gold, though later examinations showed evidence that he wore a brass nose as his everyday piece. You know how you only break out your fancy nose on special occasions.
He Had a Pet Moose
No eccentric celebrity starter kit is complete without an exotic and treasured pet, and Brahe’s was his moose. The moose lived with Brahe much like a dog would, dutifully walking beside his carriage everywhere he went and sleeping indoors in his home. He even partied with Brahe, with tragic (albeit absolutely hilarious) results.
Death By Moose Misadventure
Eventually, the moose started getting invited to parties all on his own, which Brahe was apparently weirdly okay with. On one such occasion at a neighboring nobleman’s home, the moose drank so much beer that he fell down the stairs to his death and Brahe presumably received the world’s only “sorry we killed your moose” condolences card.
His Psychic Jester
Despite being a man of science, Brahe had some unusual beliefs, including in the psychic ability of a dwarf named Jepp who he hired as his jester to sit under his table at meal times and occasionally predict the future. There’s little information out there about Jepp or how these two people could have possibly met, which is a shame because it must be a hell of a story.
Tycho Brahe, Astrologer to the Stars
Another of Brahe’s more out-there convictions was his ardent belief that the movements of the stars affect human bodies and relations, mostly shared by Instagram influencers and tabloid readers. He even enjoyed writing up his own horoscopes for the rich and Danish, meaning he and the lady who reads palms down at the boardwalk have literally anything in common.
His Marriage Caused a Scandal
A rock star like Brahe wasn’t about to marry some fussy noble lady. Naturally, he fell in love with a commoner, which caused something of a scandal, especially since marrying her would mean renouncing his own nobility. He wasn’t about to go that far, but Danish law did allow common-law marriages, requiring them to live in sin for three years before being legally recognized as husband and wife, which was no small scandal of its own.
He Had His Own Science Island
By 1575, the Danish king was worried Brahe would leave his homeland for scientifically greener pastures, so he gave him an entire island on which to build a laboratory in what is now Sweden, where Brahe immediately began bossing around the very confused residents who had no idea they suddenly had a lord. He even built his own printing press and paper mill, some of the first in Scandinavia, on the island, just to publish his research.
He Was Literally the Official Bohemian Astronomer
Today, “bohemian” describes a person who has a trust fund but wears nothing but scarves from thrift stores, but Bohemia used to be a real place, so where better for the hardest-partying scientist to science than the kingdom of art and not showering? After the Danish king died and Brahe found that he just did not vibe with the new one, the Bohemian king invited him to Prague, where he became the official imperial astronomer. We should have those again.
He (Might Have) Had an Affair With the Queen
Part of the reason Brahe fell out with the new king was because he believed the imperial astronomer slept with his mother, Queen Sophie. And after all that Frederick did for him! (But who knows? Maybe he was cool with it.)
He Died As He Lived
That might be why, when Brahe died in 1601, it was immediately suspected he was poisoned, either by the king or his ambitious assistant, Johannes Kepler. It was more likely some kind of kidney or bladder problem, which is why it was also rumored at the time that his bladder had burst because he refused to stop drinking long enough to pee at a party. Fortunately, he’d already written his own very prescient epitaph: “He lived like a sage and died like a fool.”
Between parties, Brahe did manage to do some science. One of his most important contributions was his observation of a supernova, which proved that stars did change, contrary to the prevailing belief at the time. He also created his own model of the solar system in which the sun orbited earth but the rest of the planets orbited the sun, and while that turned out not to be accurate, it was still pretty good for the 16th century.
Instrumental to the Field
Possibly Brahe’s biggest contribution was his work with instruments like the quadrant and the sextant. He was in the last generation of astronomers who worked without telescopes, so whatever instrumentation they could get their hands on was crucial, and Brahe’s were better and more accurate than anybody’s. Equally important was just his method of using these instruments to record systematic, rigidly timed observations, no matter how far he had to stumble to the lab.
Life After Death
The extent of Brahe’s work wasn’t even known until after his death because he refused to tell anyone about it, let alone let them see it. This drove Kepler pretty crazy, to the point that, upon his boss’s death, he swiped his data before his hilariously complicated estate could be settled. This enabled Kepler to “move astronomy further forward than anyone before him,” perhaps as a final party favor.
Top image: Skokloster Castle/Wikimedia Commons