Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe was one of the best-respected scientists of his generation. By the time he died in 1601, he had disproved Aristotle’s theory of an unchanging celestial realm, coined the term nova (as in supernova), and created the foundations for Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. Most astonishingly, he managed this without the use of a telescope, which wasn’t invented until seven years after his death.
But for all his genius, Brahe was a madman. He spent a good deal of his life living in a gigantic castle full of hidden passages, trapdoors and a dungeon, along with a psychic dwarf and an alcoholic pet moose.
He was born into Danish nobility around the mid-16th century, about halfway between Denmark’s wild Viking past and its current civilised present. At the young age of 13, Brahe entered university, where he became obsessed with astronomy and mathematics. Through his observations of celestial events during these early years, he realised that most of what had been laid down by his predecessors was totally wrong. So he set off to create an accurate record of how planets and stars move throughout the cosmos — a feat he achieved with stunning accuracy.
But it’s Brahe’s bizarre private life that was truly mind-blowing. For instance, one evening while at a wedding reception with a bunch of fellow maths geeks, he got into a drunken argument with one of the guests over who was the better mathematician. Because he was an arrogant arse, Brahe drew his broadsword and challenged the man to a duel — which he consequently lost when his opponent lopped off his nose. Evidently his swordsmanship wasn’t as good as his maths skills. Of course, Brahe wasn’t about to live the rest of his life without a nose, so he composed one from gold, silver and brass alloys and fixed it to his face using wax ointment. From that point on Brahe had a metal nose, which I think we can all agree is pretty damned awesome.
A tyrant and a madman, Brahe was known to throw people he didn’t like into his personal dungeon without a trial or any regard for the law.
After he became one of the first people to witness a supernova, Brahe pretty much proved that the universe was in constant motion as opposed to being fixed, as was previously thought. In a single stroke, he blew 2,000 years of scientific thought out of the water and turned the astronomical world on its head.
The King of Denmark took notice and commissioned Brahe to construct an observatory on an island off the coast of Copenhagen. It was there that he built Uraniborg, the ‘Castle of Urania’. The place was pure madness — featuring six towers, a laboratory, two libraries, a torture chamber, an army of astronomer henchmen and secret passages that could only be accessed by moving certain objects that doubled as levers.
Brahe spent his time in this supervillain-esque island lair uncovering the secrets of the cosmos — and getting shit-faced. He became infamous for the massive booze-fuelled parties he held at the castle. These gatherings would involve plenty of drinking, the occasional fight and a soothsaying dwarf court jester named Jepp who lived under the table. On top of that, he kept a 350-kilogram, boozed-up moose that would run around entertaining party guests until it died falling down some stairs in a drunken stupor.
A tyrant and a madman, Brahe was known to throw people he didn’t like into his personal dungeon without a trial or any regard for the law. But he was also a genius who designed and calibrated the most precise astronomical instrumentation of his time. The body of work he left behind was eventually taken up by his star pupil, Johannes Kepler, who used Brahe’s discoveries along with the newly invented telescope to come up with Kepler’s laws of planetary motion — a foundational tenet of modern astronomy. Myth has it that Brahe died from poisoning, which is only half true. He actually died after holding his pee for too long while out on a bender — this turned into a bladder infection that eventually killed him.
Brahe was immortalised 50 years after his death by his colleagues, who named a gigantic lunar crater in his honour.