Was Danish Astronomer Tycho Brahe Murdered?

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Danish alchemist Tycho Brahe devoted his life to the business of science, painstakingly charting the positions of celestial objects with such unprecedented rigor that eventually a new view of the universe emerged.

So it seems highly appropriate that lingering questions about his sudden death in 1601 at the age of 54 be answered, even four centuries later.

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Brahe’s body was exhumed from its tomb in Prague on Monday, in hopes of determining if mercury poisoning or other toxins were behind his demise. Czech and Danish scientists from Aarhus University plan to analyze hair, bone and clothing samples collected from Brahe’s remains. More tests will be done at universities in Lund, Sweden and Odense, Denmark, the Czech Academy of Sciences says.

It’s not the first time Brahe’s body has been subject to posthumous scrutiny. An autopsy in 1900 discredited the diagnosis of a kidney stone as the cause of death. Scientists did found extremely toxic levels of mercury in hairs from Brahe’s moustache, but suspicions of death by poisoning could not be confirmed.

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A century later, scientists are ready to take another stab at figuring out at what happened at a banquet in Prague where Brahe fell ill. He died 11 days later. Speculation centers on three theories: He was murdered; he died from kidney disease; or he suffered accidental poisoning by ingesting too much mercury or other toxins in the course of his experiments.

High concentrations of toxins near the roots of his hair could tip the scales in favor of murder. Longer-term exposure would indicate Brahe likely died from an unintentional overdosing.

Brahe, himself, would no doubt enjoy the detailed work. His observations — made without telescopes, which were not yet invented — toppled the theory of celestial spheres, which held that celestial bodies were encased in spheres arranged outward from a stationary Earth at the center of the universe. His measurements of comets proved they were not atmospheric phenomena and therefore must pass through supposedly immutable spheres.

Brahe was a mentor to Johannes Kepler, who later used his teacher’s measurements to come up with the laws of planetary motion, which eventually led to a heliocentric model of the solar system.

Image: Did overzealous lab work, kidney disease or an assailant fell Tycho Brahe? Perhaps after 400 years, the mystery may be solved. Credit: Rice University/The Galileo Project.

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