The Father of Astronomy Was Killed by Piss

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The Father of Astronomy Was Killed by Piss

To non-astronomers, there aren’t a huge amount of A-list astronomers. Most people could probably name Copernicus, Galileo and Hubble, but realistically, they learned those names from the dog in 1955 in Back to the Future, the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody and a big-ass telescope that occasionally features in “yo mamma’s so fat…” jokes.

One guy whose name might ring only a faint bell is Tycho Brahe, a 16th-century Danish astronomer who made some remarkable innovations that helped to bring about the Scientific Revolution. He spotted a supernova in 1572, a “new star” that challenged a lot of what was taken as fact about the unshiftable nature of the stars in the sky. 

Working in the pre-telescope era, he made enormous breakthroughs in terms of improving the accuracy of celestial observations, honing devices like the sextant and the quadrant to get to previously undreamt-of levels of accuracy. While some of the conclusions he reached from his research were far from perfect — he was convinced that the Sun and Moon orbited the Earth, and the other planets orbited the Sun, and had a tendency to treat scripture as a scientific text — he made enormous contributions to science. Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, for instance, were based on his mentor Brahe’s observations of the movements of Mars. The two observatories Brahe built — Stjerneborg and Uraniborg — were cutting-edge (until, you know, telescopes came along and made them look a bit silly). 

Speaking of cutting edges, Brahe had his nose sliced off at the age of 20. He got in a duel with his third cousin, who accidentally sliced a big chunk of his honker off, as well as cutting his head open. Brahe ended up wearing a metal prosthetic section of nose for the rest of his life, which was probably embarrassing on top of everything else — this was a time when a lot of people were contracting syphilis (from, let’s say, poor decision-making), sometimes losing their noses as a result, so one can only imagine Brahe spent a lot of time assuring people, “No, it’s not what it looks like, my cousin did it.” 

But rather than being brought down by the same poor penis mistakes as his metal-nosed compatriots, he was taken down by a different sort: one involving piss. The big-brained, metal-nosed polymath undone by humble urine. And not even urine that came out of him: urine that stayed exactly where it was. The story goes that Brahe was at a banquet and needed a pee, but etiquette forbade him from leaving, so he held it in. Unfortunately, when he got home and could safely drain the lizard, nothing was forthcoming.

And then, in the words of Victor Thoren and John Christianson’s 1990 book The Lord of Uraniborg: A Biography of Tycho Brahe, “through five days and nights of sleepless agony, he pondered the agony of paying so great a price for, as he thought, having committed such a trivial offense.”

He managed to produce a small amount of urine, in excruciating pain, but found his urethra partly blocked. He had several more days of pain, fever and delirium before dying. He was 54, and had spent 38 years documenting the stars.

So, are we putting ourselves at risk any time we push ourselves to make it to the end of a movie before using the bathroom? If we get stuck in traffic after drinking a big soda, are we looking death in the face? 

“The good news is that, while uncomfortable, occasionally holding back a pee  shouldn’t harm us,” explains Ajay Deshpande, senior clinical lead at London Medical Laboratory. “The bladder can hold about two cups of liquid during the day and up to four at night, and it lets us know we need to pay a call when it’s around halfway full. Ignoring the warning can mean it hurts when we eventually do go, and there may be some pelvic cramps, but normally that’s the worst that happens. However, holding on for too long can occasionally lead to a urinary tract infection. Look out for stinging as you pee and foul-smelling urine. Holding on regularly may also lead to bladder stretching and damage to your pelvic floor muscles. These problems could lead to incontinence in the longer term.”

While this is a relief — big sodas for everyone! — it doesn’t explain Brahe’s painful, wee-less death. How did opting out of a tinkle send him to an early grave?

“At the time, Brahe’s death was ascribed by one physician to kidney stones,” says Deshpande, who suggests a finger-prick blood test for anyone concerned about their own kidneys. “However, an autopsy in 1901 on his body found no sign of any stones. Other people suspected he’d been poisoned with mercury, by jealous rivals or because of an alleged affair. However, a second exhumation of poor Brahe’s body in 2010 found no lethal amount of any poisons. Today, the thinking is that either his bladder burst or he was suffering from prostate cancer.”

Wait a minute, bladders burst?

“Again, don’t panic,” Deshpande tells me. “In a healthy person, your bladder shouldn’t burst, no matter how long you hold on. You’ll pee involuntarily long before that could occur.” However, he points out, something like a blockage could lead to such a rupture, as could pelvic or abdominal trauma.

In other words, it isn’t out of the question that the father of astronomy sat on his keys, filled up with pee and died. All that time looking up, not enough looking down.

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