Who Killed Tycho Brahe?

Unearthing the Truth Beneath the Great Astronomer’s Untimely Demise

Peter Bros, the late alternative science historian and regular Atlantis Rising contributor, believed that mainstream science was not to be trusted. Citing such unsung heroes as Immanuel Velikovsky and Halton Arp, Bros argued that modern academic science behaves more like an intolerant fundamentalist religion than an institution devoted to learning the truth.

Velikovsky was a great scholar with impeccable credentials. For his politically incorrect revelation of the role of planetary cataclysm in the history of civilization, he saw his views and his reputation thoroughly trashed by the reigning scientific establishment. As for leading-edge astronomer, Halton Arp, Bros pointed out that Arp “jumped through all the hoops of the big bang theory and discovered its major flaws, [namely] that objects from the same source have drastically different red shifts,” which clearly demonstrated, Bros concluded, that “The big bang was a bust.” For that very unpopular and annoying—if not deeply troubling—finding, Arp has been ostracized by his peers and excluded from the influential circles in which he belongs.

The problems of intolerance and dishonesty in science, though, are certainly not new. In the seventeenth century Galileo was condemned by the Roman inquisition for daring to argue that the earth revolved around the sun—not the other way around. For that offense, he was forced to recant and to spend the rest of his life under house arrest. Today, though, the threat of academic sanction is usually sufficient to keep the unruly in line; but approved tactics for dealing with the competition may not always have been so civilized. Danish-Czech astronomer Tycho Brahe—whose theories were among those updated by Galileo—was himself, Bros believed, a victim of foul play. Bros was not alone in that view.

Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), was known for his accurate and comprehensive astronomical and planetary observations which were made without telescopes using elaborate paraphernalia of his own design. Some researchers have argued that he was murdered by his assistant, Johannes Kepler, who later became famous for his own “laws of motion,” which were based on information he took from Tycho Brahe. Now, ironically, a new study of Tycho’s physical remains seems unexpectedly to exonerate Kepler, at least of using mercury for a poison. Nevertheless, the story of Tycho Brahe and his mysterious sudden death remains one of the most fascinating forensic puzzles in science.


A New Celestial Arrangement

Writing in Atlantis Rising #56 (March–April 2006) Copernican Series author Peter Bros explained the importance of the great astronomer’s work: “According to Tycho Brahe’s measurements, which are just as valid today as they were the day he made them, the moon and the planets were speeding up and slowing down…” Proposing such a thing, at that time, was, in itself, a major heresy. The movement of the planets and stars, as all well knew, was fixed for eternity.

In 1572 a great supernova in the Milky Way had caught everyone’s attention. Still considered one of the most important events in the history of astronomy, the event led to many changes in astronomical doctrine and provided Tycho Brahe with the opening for a new theory.

In his De Nova Stella (On the New Star) of 1573, Tycho refuted the prevailing Aristotelian belief, supported by the Church, of an unchanging celestial realm. His precise measurements indicated that “new stars” (stellae novae, now called supernovae), in particular the one of 1572, lacked the parallax expected in sub-lunar phenomena (parallax is the difference in the apparent position of an object when viewed along two different lines of sight, as measured by the angle between the two). Such stars were therefore not “atmospheric” tailless comets, as previously believed, but occurred above and beyond the atmosphere and the moon.

Using similar measurements he showed that comets also were not, as previously thought, mere atmospheric phenomena and, indeed, must pass through the supposedly “immutable” celestial spheres.

And even though Tycho himself still believed the earth was the center of the solar system, his measurements would eventually lead to many modern ideas about gravity, which yet prevail.

Tycho Brahe spent most of his life carrying out his measurements, until Johannes Kepler—a person who, as Bros puts it, “liked to create order out of chaos”—came along. Kepler soon established himself in Tycho’s good graces and became his assistant. Their relationship, though, it seems, was anything but harmonious.

No one really knows what bitter arguments may have ensued, but researchers Joshua and Anne-Lee Gilder have offered more than a hint. In their book, Heavenly Intrigue: Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and the Murder Behind One of History’s Greatest Scientific Discoveries (Doubleday, 2004), the Gilders showed, through evidence gathered at the exhumation of Tycho’s body in 1901, and subsequent testing of his mustache hairs, that he was poisoned, not once, but twice and they also showed how that poisoning must have been carried out by Kepler, seemingly to get control, for his own purposes, of Tycho’s 40 years of observations.


Kepler’s Agenda

Kepler, himself, had been introduced to astronomy at an early age. At six, he witnessed the Great Comet of 1577. He “was taken by [his] mother,” he later wrote, “to a high place to look at it.” At nine, he observed a lunar eclipse, recording that he remembered being “called outdoors,” to see it and that the moon “appeared quite red.” Childhood smallpox, however, left him with weak vision and crippled hands, limiting his ability in the observational aspects of astronomy. (Wikipedia)

Kepler, in fact, used Tycho’s data along with mathematics—at which he excelled—to build his famous law that the planets sweep out equal areas in equal times. This meant that as the planets move closer to the sun, they speed up, and as they move away from the sun, they slow down. The effect was what Bros called “a sort of rubber band picture of planetary motion.”

Nearly a century later, Isaac Newton was able to employ those same orbital velocity observations made by Tycho. Newton, though, showed a different constant, Bros wrote, that applied to orbits around each planet and the sun to produce a theoretical property of matter he called gravity. He then made the assertion that planets were uniformly made up of identical particles of matter, allowing him to compute a planet’s gravity by volume.

Using the implied principles in Tycho’s numbers, Kepler created “laws of motion” which showed that, if it were not for the force of the Earth and moon’s gravity, the moon would be going in a straight line.

“In short,” wrote Bros, “Tycho’s simple observation that the moon and the planets speed up and slow down is the basis for our present-day belief—similar to the belief that the Earth was at the center of the universe—that gravity is a property of something, and if you question it, [you should] leave the room, preferably by the window.”

As an astronomer, Tycho was attempting to combine what he saw as the geometrical benefits of the Copernican system with the philosophical benefits of the Ptolemaic system into his own model of the universe, the Tychonic system. Furthermore, as Wikipedia has it, Tycho was the last of the major naked-eye astronomers, working for his observations without the aid of telescopes.


The Death of Tycho Brahe

For centuries, the cause of Tycho’s death has been a flash point for controversy. The website Geocentricity.com is typical of those who report that Tycho may have “died of a burst bladder because he was too proud to relieve himself of his liquor at a party.” That particular theory has been substantially refuted, though. Others have proposed that he died of a urinary bladder infection and that, indeed, he may have tried to cure himself with a medicine containing mercury.

The night before he died, Tycho suffered from a delirium during which, as we learned later from Kepler, he was frequently heard to exclaim that he hoped he would not seem to have lived in vain. It was said that Tycho had written his own epitaph, declaring, “He lived like a sage and died like a fool.”

A contemporary physician attributed his death to a kidney stone, but no kidney stones were found after the 1901 exhumation. The mercury theory resulted from a forensic examination by a Swedish lab in the early 1990s. The lab found a spike in mercury abundance in one of Tycho’s hairs. The time corresponded to the onset of Tycho’s illness at the party. It seems implausible that he would purposefully drink a lethal dose of mercury and then choose not to exit and relieve himself.

Another hair, the only one with its root still attached, was reportedly tested years later. It also showed the aforementioned mercury spike, but it revealed an even greater spike just hours before his death. This has led many, including the Gilders, to conclude that he was likely poisoned. As for the identity of the perpetrator, the only person who stood to gain from his death, it is argued, was Johannes Kepler. Though some claim he was away at the time and could not have murdered Tycho. Nevertheless, we know that Kepler did manage to appropriate much of his employer’s data, including all of his Mars figures. In court, Kepler subsequently lost and was forced to return to the family all the data except the Mars material, which, it seems, he had coveted for a long time.

The story is told in detail in Gilders’ book, which reported what others had suspected after reading Kepler’s preface to the publication of his discovery on elliptical orbits.

Fast forward to 2010.


The New Exhumation

In an apparent effort to debunk the Gilders’ findings, Tycho Brahe’s body was—in 2010—once again exhumed from his grave in Prague. This time the event received extensive international media coverage. A team of filmmakers from

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the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR) followed the entire project closely. The resulting documentary The Mysterious Death of Tycho Brahe was scheduled for November 2012 broadcast in Denmark.

Since the exhumation, a Danish-Czech team of researchers has worked diligently to determine what they say is the definitive cause of the astronomer’s death. The team report that he results of their intensive work rules out mercury poisoning as a cause of death.

Project head Dr. Jens Vellev, an archaeologist at Aarhus University in Denmark, acknowledges that, “Rumors of death by poisoning arose shortly after Tycho Brahe’s death. Tycho’s famous assistant Johannes Kepler has been identified as a possible murder suspect, and other candidates have also been singled out for suspicion throughout the years.”

The mercury poisoning theory concedes the team press spokesperson Anna Kjærgaard, “had received apparent corroboration from repeated tests of the well-preserved remains of Tycho Brahe’s beard which were removed from the grave when his body was exhumed for the first time in 1901.”

“To definitively prove or disprove these much-debated theories,” explains Vellev, “we took samples from Tycho Brahe’s beard, bones and teeth. While our analyses of his teeth are not yet complete, the scientific analyses of Tycho Brahe’s bones and beard are.”

Levels of mercury in the beard were investigated by Dr. Kaare Lund Rasmussen, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Southern Denmark and Dr. Jan Kucera, professor of nuclear chemistry at the Nuclear Physics Institute in Prague.

“We measured the concentration of mercury using three different quantitative chemical methods in our labs in Odense and Rez, and all tests revealed the same result: that mercury concentrations were not sufficiently high to have caused his death,” says Rasmussen, who analyzed the bone samples using cold vapor atomic absorption spectroscopy.

“In fact,” she says, “chemical analyses of the bones indicate that Tycho Brahe was not exposed to an abnormally high mercury load in the last five to ten years of his life.”

“Analyses of hairs from the beard were performed using radiochemical neutron activation analysis and proton microprobe scanning in Rez. They reflect the mercury load in the last approximately eight weeks of Tycho Brahe’s life, and these analyses show that mercury concentrations fell from the high end of the normal level eight weeks before death to the low end of the normal level in the last two weeks before death,” explains Kucera.

As to how lethal quantities of mercury could have gotten into the hairs examined after the 1901 exhumation, no explanation is offered.

In addition to Tycho’s beard, another central element of what the researchers term the “Tycho Brahe myth” was subjected to quantitative analysis—his notorious artificial nose. Tycho lost part of his nose in a duel in 1566. According to tradition, the prosthetic nose he wore for the rest of his life was made of silver and gold.

When Tycho Brahe’s grave was opened for the first time in 1901, his nose prosthesis was not found, but there were greenish stains around the nasal region—traces left by the prosthesis.

“When we exhumed the body in 2010,” says Vellev, “we took a small bone sample from the nose so that we could examine its chemical composition. Surprisingly, our analyses revealed that the prosthesis was not made of precious metals, as was previously supposed. The green coloration turned out to contain traces of equal parts copper and zinc, which indicates that the prosthesis was made of brass. So,” exults Vallev, “Tycho Brahe’s famous ‘silver nose’ wasn’t made of silver after all.”

The brass nose, however, has not been implicated in Tycho’s suspicious death.


Science as Defense Attorney

So, if Tycho Brahe did not die of mercury poisoning, what did he die of? The question, so far, remains unanswered. For now we are left to choose between two contradictory “scientific” studies of Tycho Brahe’s remains: one which found evidence that Johannes Kepler—hero of the scientific revolution—had murdered his employer; and a later investigation which seems to clear the early science icon of any crime.

Could science itself be a victim of foul play?

“A major problem with science today,” writes Dr. Robert Schoch, professor of Geology at Boston University, [is] “the dominance of certain ruling paradigms.” In “Politics, Money, and Science,” an appendix to his recent book, Forgotten Civilizations, Schoch writes, “Those who control the money, jobs, prestige, technical publication outlets, and popular media (whether directly or subtlety) have a low tolerance for ideas that may challenge the desired result or accepted status quo. It seems that in the modern world if one wants to be sure to fit in, one does not question certain sacred cows.”

As Peter Bros lamented, “No wonder we live in ignorance about the forces that move the objects around us, assigning the motion of the galaxies to a historical big bang; the motion of the planets to a swirling mass of gas; and the most dynamic force in our existence, gravity—in the words of one professor—to an ‘Inherent property, [which] means we don’t talk about it. And you won’t either if you want to pass this course.’”

By Martin Ruggles